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Expansion of military death benefits urged

Democrats seek to broaden scope of payouts to kin

WASHINGTON -- Democrats argued yesterday that President Bush's proposal to boost government payments to families of US troops killed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and future war zones should extend to all military personnel who die on active duty.

Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said that while he agreed with Bush's plan to give those families an extra $250,000, the money should also "apply to survivors of all members who die on active duty" and not just those who die in Pentagon-designated combat zones.

Officials with the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines told the committee that the Defense Department should not give benefits to surviving spouses and children based simply on the geography of where a death occurs.

"They can't make a distinction. I don't think we should either," said Admiral John B. Nathman, vice chief of naval operations for the Navy. Added General T. Michael Moseley, the Air Force's vice chief of staff: "I believe a death is a death, and I believe this should be treated that way."

Under questioning from Levin, David Chu, the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said the administration would work with Congress to determine the exact objective of the increased benefits. Right now, he said: "our premiere objective is to those fallen in Iraq and Afghanistan."

The proposal, the subject of the panel's hearing, includes retroactive payments to the spouses or surviving relatives of the more than 1,500 who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since October 2001. It will be in the fiscal 2006 budget proposal that Bush submits to Congress next week, a Pentagon official said.

A tax-free "death gratuity," now $12,420, would grow to $100,000. The government would also pay for $150,000 in life insurance for troops. Veterans groups and many in Congress have been pushing for such increases.

"We think the nation ought to make a larger one-time payment, quite apart from insurance, should you be killed in a combat area of operations," Chu said in an interview.

Senator Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican who is sponsoring a bill with the same provisions, said in an interview that the first-year cost of the increased benefits would be $459 million, including more than $280 million in retroactive payments of the higher gratuity and the extra life insurance payouts.

In addition to the higher gratuity, the Pentagon would substantially increase life insurance benefits, Chu said. The current $250,000 coverage offered to all service members at a subsidized rate would be raised to $400,000, and for troops in a combat zone, the government would pay the additional premiums.

Even in the case of a service member who did not participate in the basic life insurance program, the surviving spouse would receive a $150,000 settlement if the death happened in a designated combat zone, since the Pentagon is proposing to pay the premiums on that amount of coverage for everyone in a war zone. The spouse or other surviving family member also would get the $100,000 gratuity.

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