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The Department of Defense proposal to boost death benefits for servicemembers is long overdue, many Pacific troops and their families said Thursday.

Adjustments would raise the current Servicemembers Group Life Insurance ceiling from $250,000 to $400,000 and bump the death gratuity from $12,420 to $100,000 — all nontaxable sums. The new plan, patterned after legislation already introduced in the Senate, will be included in President Bush’s 2006 budget proposal, to be submitted to Congress next week.

While the Pacific military community gave the gesture a hearty reception, most argued that the maximum payouts should go to families of all who die in military service, not just in war zones.

Some soldiers in South Korea indicated they felt the proposal was a bit tardy, given the millions of dollars awarded families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“I understand for their loss,” said Pfc. Marie Gilliam, 29, of Brooklyn, N.Y., who was in New York City that day. “But it’s sort of like, they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. We’re here all the time.”

Spc. Steve Wright, 23, of Cocoa Beach, Fla., has a brother who left last week for his second tour in Iraq with the 3rd Infantry Division from Fort Stewart, Ga.

“He’s got three kids and the oldest is 11,” said Wright, a computer programmer with the 1st Signal Brigade at Yongsan Garrison. “$250,000 — it’s not enough to put them all through college.”

Critics of the new measure might kill the idea by pointing to its hefty price tag, the soldiers conceded, but they say that’s a weak argument, especially given the massive spending under way in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sasha Holloway, a Yokota dependent and former airman, said she believes the new package shouldn’t differentiate. “It shouldn’t be divided,” said Holloway, whose husband, Jerel, a staff sergeant with the 374th Communications Squadron, was in Iraq when the war began. “Even if you’re not at war, and just went TDY somewhere, it’d be the same thing. … It’s our job, no matter where you’re at.”

The DOD plan would create an automatic $150,000 life insurance payment for all troops in combat zones. That coverage and the death gratuity would be retroactive to Oct. 7, 2001, to include all troops killed in the global war on terrorism.

“The increase is a good idea,” said Sgt. Erwin Reyna of Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station, Japan. “Although no amount of money is enough to replace the life of a loved one, the extra money would help families get back on their feet. They’ve still got house payments, car payments and other responsibilities.”

That benefit should be distributed equally across the board, he added: “Whether a Marine died in training or in the fight, he still gave his life for his country. That said, people who make foolish choices, like drinking and driving, shouldn’t benefit from the increase.”

On Okinawa, Petty Officer 2nd Class Seth Burlinson, with the U.S. Naval Hospital’s Staff Education and Training section, said he always thought the SGLI’s $250,000 policy was “enough to take care of immediate needs but not enough for the families’ future.” The new payment “adds a sense of security … the dependents can use the additional money to invest and plan for down the road. It shows the senior leadership is concerned about the dependents of those killed and they’re taking the steps to look after them.”

The proposed $100,000 death gratuity, he added, should be paid to families of all servicemembers: “Whether you’re killed by a bullet, a motorcycle or a car, it still leaves dependents out in the cold who are trying to support a family.”

Vicki L. Strause, an Okinawa spouse and Navy reservist, agreed. Her husband, Staff Sgt. Eric Strause, has seen combat as a Marine infantryman.

Wherever servicemembers are stationed, she said, they work constantly to back others in harm’s way. “I’ve heard,” Strause said, “it takes seven Marines to support one infantry Marine on the front line. ... If a Marine loading supplies bound for Iraq were to be injured while doing their job, they wouldn’t be as valuable as those on the front lines? ... The infantrymen could not do their job if it weren’t for all the others doing theirs.”

About 250 airmen from Yokota Air Base, Japan, left for various Southwest Asian locations last month to support Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. Personnel and spouses at Yokota say the timing is right to enhance benefits but some said they were uncertain whether the added death payment should be offered outside the combat zone.

“It’s well-deserved,” said Staff Sgt. Jared Miller, 730th Air Mobility Squadron. “We’re losing more people all at once than in any of our recent previous battles. It was past due for a re-evaluation.

“But it should be for those in combat areas only. I can understand the distinction between being here or the U.S. and being in Iraq. For someone who dies in a car wreck in Iraq, it should be the same benefit, because it’s spurred by a combat situation. It shouldn’t be the same for car wrecks here or in the United States. The combat aspect is definitely worth recognizing.”

Teri Weaver, Greg Tyler and Fred Zimmerman contributed to this report.


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