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WASHINGTON — Senators and military leaders on Tuesday praised Department of Defense plans to raise death payouts up to $500,000, but disagreed with limiting those changes to only troops in combat zones.

Changes would raise the current Servicemembers Group Life Insurance ceiling from $250,000 to $400,000, and raise the death gratuity from $12,420 to $100,000, all tax-free.

Top officers from all four armed services testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee about the proposal, saying it’s an important step toward supporting the troops and their families.

Asked about the limits on the proposal, they said they would prefer to see those benefits extended to all active-duty troops and reservists, not just people who die in war zones.

“Their families and children can’t make the distinction,” said Adm. John Nathman, vice chief of naval operations for the Navy. “I don’t think we should either.”

Gen. William Nyland, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, said he worries the policy as proposed would exclude troops killed while training to go into combat, or those killed in off-site support roles.

“If a young man or a young lady steps forward and raises their right hand to serve this great nation, I think we have to be very careful about making any distinctions about the kind of service they render,” Nyland said.

The Department of Defense plan would also pay for the first $150,000 in life insurance for all troops in combat zones. Both that insurance coverage and the death gratuity would be retroactive to Oct. 7, 2001, to include all troops killed in the war on terror.

The proposals mirror legislation already introduced in the Senate and will be included in President Bush’s 2006 budget proposal, scheduled to be submitted to Congress next week.

“There is nothing in a financial sense we can do to replace a lost servicemember,” said David Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. “We recognize that. But we can make their (families’) lives comfortable and we can give them the appropriate financial tools to move forward.”

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who is sponsoring a bill with the same provisions, said the changes would cost $459 million the first year with about $280 million in retroactive payments. Future costs would depend on the number of deaths.

Several Democratic senators echoed the military concerns about limiting the benefits only to combat deaths, saying it was lawmakers’ duty to ensure all servicemembers’ families are taken care of financially.

“No benefit can replace the life of a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine … but that doesn’t mean our benefits shouldn’t be full and generous,” said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. “Obviously I support the increased benefits, but I believe it should be for all soldiers killed on duty.”

Chu said the new policy is in specific response to combat deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, and all families of troops killed while serving are eligible for a host of benefits like housing support, education subsidies and financial assistance programs.

As of Monday, 1,415 Americans had died in the Iraq conflict and 156 had died in Afghanistan and other places designated part of the global war on terrorism, according to the Pentagon.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Proposed death benefit changes

Current program New proposal

Death gratuity* $12,420 $100,000

Automatic insurance $0 $150,000

Most insurance purchasable $250,000 $400,000

Tax free? Yes Yes

*Only for troops in designated combat areas


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