If there is any common ground for agreement left between the warring political parties in Congress it should be in protecting the welfare of the loved ones of American soldiers who die in combat. At the moment, the nation's gratitude for those who have given their utmost is a paltry $12,420 -- in many cases hardly enough to pay for funeral expenses.
A proposal would increase that 1908-established gratuity to $100,000; hardly an excessive amount when one considers what this government has paid survivors of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack. That compensation averages well over $1 million for civilian families with relatives of policemen and firemen killed in the tragedy receiving more than twice that. The 9/11 victim compensation fund was established to protect the commercial airline industry from suits arising from the attack. It was not a great idea given the precedent it sets.
Civil War bonus
Since it was established during President Theodore Roosevelt's administration in 1908 as a bonus for Civil War veterans, the gratuity, originally a few hundred dollars, has been increased several times but not by much. It went to $1,800 to $3,000 (depending on rank) in 1956. During the Gulf War it was raised to $6,000 with half of that taxable. In 2003, the amount was increased to $12,000 and it was made tax free and tied to military pay raises. On Jan. 1, the 3.5 percent pay increase for all military personnel boosted it by $420.
Currently, the Army provides both an opportunity for its troops to buy at a low rate a $250,000 term life insurance policy and a death benefit of $6,900. Plus there is a limited monthly stipend for wives. There have been complaints that paperwork has made the insurance payments slow and some wives and children have been financially as well as emotionally devastated. Another plan circulating in Congress would have the Army pay the premium on the insurance policy. Some in the military have reduced the amount of the policy as a way of saving money or, in some case, refused it altogether.
The proposal also would increase the insurance to $300,000 and the estimates are that the cost of raising both the death gratuity and the insurance ceiling would cost about $420 million in the first year. While that may seem substantial, it is little enough to pay to assure those willing to sacrifice their lives that their survivors have extended security.
Few issues have more emotional appeal and practical application. If the nation is going to continue to rely on an all-volunteer military supplemented by reserve and National Guard units, then few other proposals could do as much to keep recruitments high as convincing potential soldiers in a time of war that their loved ones will be taken care of should anything happen to them.
Aside from the practical aspect, it is simply the right thing, the moral thing to do. Past generations have willingly sacrificed their lives in the national interest without the kind of protections they deserved. Few have made an issue of it. The time has come to provide the guardians of our welfare and freedom with more than just a posthumous medal for bravery. In fact, the insurance policy should be extended to those who are permanently maimed in combat. As a former secretary of Veterans Affairs noted recently, those who care for soldiers who have lost a limb or face long-term disability frequently have more serious emotional and financial drains than the families of those who have died. But extending the insurance to cover injuries probably is some time off.
There are also several private foundations established to provide compensation for the families of those who die in service. The Intrepid Fund, supported by private donations, distributes several thousand dollars for children and wives and husbands of military dead. But the government should bear most of the burden.
Republicans pushing the increase clearly believe it will help offset Democrat charges that the Bush administration has been negligent in its treatment of servicemen and women, failing to provide many of them, particularly reservists and Guardsmen, with adequate armor and other equipment. Whatever the reasons behind this push, it is an opportunity for both parties to put aside some of the animosity already so obvious in the first days of the new Congress and do something for the most deserving among us.
X Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.