Lawmakers and military officials said Tuesday that President Bush's proposal to boost government payments to families of U.S. troops killed in Iraq, Afghanistan and other war zones was a good start but too narrow.
Republicans suggested that those who die while training for combat missions also should be eligible for the increased death benefits. Democrats argued that the benefits should extend to all military personnel who die while on active duty.
Uniformed officials with the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force told the Senate Armed Forces Committee, during a hearing on the proposal, that the Defense Department should not give an extra $250,000 in 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 Adm. John B. Nathman, vice chief of naval operations for the Navy. Added Gen. 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 the Pentagon proposal, a tax-free "death gratuity," now $12,420, would grow to $100,000 only in cases where the service member died in a war zone as designated by the secretary of defense.
The Pentagon also would substantially increase life insurance benefits. The $250,000 coverage offered to all service members at a subsidized rate under the Servicemen's Group Life Insurance program would be raised to $400,000, and for troops in a combat zone the government would pay the premiums on the extra $150,000 coverage.
The increases would be retroactive to Oct. 7, 2001, the date the United States launched its invasion of Afghanistan in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The families of the more than 1,500 troops who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since then would be eligible.
"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," David Chu, the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, told The Associated Press.
At the hearing, Chu was pressed on why only those who died in Pentagon-designated combat zones were eligible for the one-time death gratuity payment. "Our premier objective is to those fallen in Iraq and Afghanistan," he said.
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said who qualifies for the death gratuity is just one of a number of problems with the Pentagon proposal. "I obviously support the increases," Levin said, "but I also believe that this should apply to survivors of all members who die on active duty,"
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., have introduced a bill that's similar to the Pentagon proposal, although Sessions said that under the bill, the families of those killed while training in preparation for the war also would get the bigger payment.
After the hearing, Sessions said of the military, "I think we'll probably try to give them more flexibility to include more people."