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Mideast edition, Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Since 2002, Pentagon officials knew that tens of thousands of U.S. servicemembers didn’t have their spouses properly entered in a database used to enroll families in a family life insurance program.

It also knew that those troops weren’t paying premiums for Family Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance — about $5 million a year since the program began.

Now, the Defense Department is collecting, and troops who say they didn’t know they were enrolled in the program are angry it took the Pentagon so long to alert them to their debts.

The DOD estimates some 23,000 active-duty troops in dual-military marriages and 33,000 reservists owe the Pentagon an average of about $446 each in unpaid FSGLI premiums.

“I was never ‘made aware’ that there was a problem and that it was going to cost me,” Petty Officer 3rd Class Brent Young, a Navy reservist from Rochester, N.Y., wrote to Stars and Stripes.

But there was a problem, and Young found out about it when he got his April pay statement. Since joining the Reserves in January 2006, his pay statements had always listed him as married, though the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System, the database DOD uses to determine the premiums troops pay, didn’t have any information on his wife.

A March audit, which compared data in the separate payroll and DEERS databases, “triggered a flag that someone should check for a FSGLI ‘Declined’ form,” Young wrote.

Enrollment in FSGLI is automatic for all military family members, as long as the servicemember is enrolled in Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance. If the FSGLI declination form isn’t in a member’s file — or if they can’t produce a valid copy of one — chances are they’ll have to pay up.

“There wasn’t one in my file,” Young wrote. “I was shocked and told that basically I was [OUT OF LUCK].”

He’s now paying back $444.

DOD contends that had a servicemember’s spouse died, even if premiums weren’t being paid, the death benefit would be paid out. That is the case, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs, which administers the program.

In fact, that is how Veterans’ Affairs and DOD became aware of the problem back in 2002.

A servicemember in a dual-military marriage was killed in combat, “and the [Department of Veterans’ Affairs] went to pay the death benefit to the surviving member and found out the surviving member was not paying the FSGLI premiums,” Lt. Col. Darryl Darden, a spokesman for the Army’s personnel division, wrote in response to questions from Stars and Stripes.

Such circumstances are not uncommon, according to the VA.

In 2006, 886 claims were paid to troops whose spouses had died, VA officials said. In a similar “recent” time period, VA said it had paid out 35 claims to servicemembers who hadn’t paid their premiums, though it deducted the overdue amount first.

Still, this argument doesn’t sit well with some dual-military couples who are also covered under — and pay for — SGLI, which provides up to $400,000 worth of life insurance compared to FSGLI’s $100,000.

“I have been on two deployments and my wife on one, and we still never heard of [FSGLI],” wrote Staff Sgt. Mario Cooper, a platoon sergeant serving in Iraq with Company A, 67th Signal Battalion.

Each time either deployed, they were given the option to change their SGLI coverage, but that wasn’t the case with FSGLI.

Neither knew FSGLI even existed until their second child was born and they updated their information in DEERS. By then, each had racked up $440 in unpaid premiums for life insurance they didn’t need.

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