Suddenly, Everyone Wants a Boost in Military Death Benefits

On top of the emotional cataclysm that Sgt. 1st Class Baron “Wentz” Shanaberger’s death in Iraq caused his wife and four children came a financial cost as well.

When Corey Shanaberger calculated the cost of losing her Army husband to an enemy ambush in March 2004, the toll came to a monthly deficit for the now-fatherless family of about $1,300.

Without her husband’s Army pay and no longer entitled to live on base, Corey had to figure out a new way to make ends meet. Though she wanted to stay in Fort Pierce, Fla., near her in-laws and her husband’s grave, Corey decided it was best to return to her native Australia, where she is studying to be a medical assistant.

Helping families like the Shanabergers is the aim of a fast-building effort on Capitol Hill that would exponentially boost government death benefits for spouses and children. This comes as a Scripps Howard News Service study of casualties has shown that nearly 50 percent of the 1,400 troops who have died in Iraq were married, and nearly 1 in 3 had children.

These percentages are proportionally higher than in America’s earlier wars, largely because the current all-volunteer force and its attendant reserve and National Guard components are older and more settled than armies of the past.

On Tuesday, the Bush administration jumped on the bigger-benefits bandwagon, promoting a plan that would give the families of troops killed in combat zones as much as $500,000 in cash and life insurance proceeds soon after a loved one’s death. President Bush will highlight the plan Wednesday night when he delivers his annual State of the Union address.

It wasn’t long Tuesday before congressional Democrats one-upped the Pentagon, advocating that such benefits be paid to the survivors of any active-duty GI, regardless of where, or how, the death occurred.

That sat well with top armed services leaders who testified Tuesday before the Senate Armed Forces Committee. “I believe a death is a death and I believe this should be treated that way,” the Air Force vice chief of staff, Gen. T. Michael Moseley, said.

Already making their way around Capitol Hill are measures shepherded by GOP Sens. Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Mike DeWine of Ohio that would further sweeten the benefits.

DeWine’s plan, for instance, would create for the first time a $25,000 death benefit for the children of fallen troops. It would also give each surviving child a $750 monthly check – tripling the current benefit of $247.

Most of the plans being proposed would be retroactive at least to the October 2001 start of the war to oust the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The precise cost to taxpayers of the various proposals is not yet clear. But Sessions estimated that his plan – which is closest to the one advocated by the White House – would carry a price tag of about $460 million in the first year.

The centerpiece of the White House plan is an increase in the “death gratuity payment” – which families receive almost immediately after they have been informed of the passing of their loved one – from the current $12,400 to $100,000. It also would boost the maximum death insurance coverage from $250,000 to $400,000.

(E-mail Lisa Hoffman at HoffmanL(at)