Pentagon Offers Belated Support to Boost in Military Death Benefits

The Pentagon unveiled a plan on Tuesday to nearly double to about $500,000 the cash payments for families of U.S. forces killed in combat, responding to demands from the U.S. Congress to improve benefits for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Pentagon’s plan, which closely tracks bipartisan proposals in Congress, would increase the immediate payments to survivors from the current $262,000 through a one-time death gratuity payment and life insurance coverage.

The increased payments would be made retroactive to the autumn of 2001 when the Afghanistan war began.

Lawmakers at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing said they hoped to include the enhanced death benefits in the $80 billion emergency spending bill the White House is expected to seek in coming weeks for the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

“We must do all that we can to support the families of the fallen and that’s why the president strongly supports increasing this compensation,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

The cash payments are part of a military death benefits package that also includes annuities, monthly payments, medical and education benefits for spouses and children.

Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers described the current cash death payments as “paltry,” “miserly” and “un-American.”

Under Defense Secretary David Chu did not offer cost estimates for the increased benefits. But Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, who worked with the Pentagon on the legislation, said it would cost about $460 million in the first year, including some $280 million in retroactive benefits.

Democrats said the White House was just bowing to congressional pressure with the proposal. “We are happy the president is following our lead,” said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

Several lawmakers said the Pentagon’s plan still was inadequate because it would apply only to those killed in areas designated as combat zones instead of those killed on active duty including in training exercises and transport missions.

While some details were yet to be worked out, the plan would increase the maximum life insurance coverage to $400,000, with $150,000 of the insurance funded by the government for forces in combat zones. It also would raise the $12,420 one-time payment made to survivors of a member killed in combat to $100,000.

Lawmakers said a key issue will be whether to limit the increased benefits to servicemen killed in areas the Pentagon designates as combat zones, or applied more broadly to those killed on active duty.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate to distinguish between one type of death and another,” said Sen. Mark Dayton, a Minnesota Democrat.

The vice chiefs of staff of the four military branches who testified at the hearing said they felt the payments should be applied more broadly.