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In wars past, the arrival of a Western Union telegram signaled the worst for a waiting wife — the inescapable reality that her loved one, and usually the breadwinner, would not be coming home.

But over time, the Defense Department has developed casualty assistance and benefits systems to provide emotional and financial support for surviving families.

Spouses and family members receive financial assistance; they also get intangible benefits such as access to base commissaries; post offices; exchanges; medical and legal centers; Morale, Welfare and Recreation facilities and Department of Defense-run schools.

But for servicemembers and Defense Department civilians living overseas — where status of forces agreements affect benefits and services — survivors may be unable to claim some of those intangibles.

“The amount of assistance that we can give a spouse may be restricted because of the SOFA agreements,” said Maj. Kathleen Johnson, an 8th Army spokeswoman in South Korea.

Among other things, SOFAs allow U.S. products to be sold on bases without taxes and tariffs. Host nations make that concession because of the limited number of eligible SOFA personnel.

After a servicemember dies, his or her survivors lose their SOFA status after a brief period of time, along with rights to many services stateside families enjoy.

“On the death of a servicemember, their [family’s] SOFA status basically terminates,” said John M. Dykstra, chief of administrative and international law for U.S. Army Japan. “Once the soldier leaves Japan, whether he dies, PCSs [changes duty station] or ETSs [leaves the military], the family members don’t have a reason for being there.”

In terms of immigration, family members often can remain in the country. Those who are nationals of the host country can revert to their own citizenship. Others can apply to stay on tourist or other visas.

Even without SOFA status, spouses keep their military identification cards for life or until they remarry, and children keep theirs until they finish high school or college.

The ID card gives access to some benefits including medical care at any military medical facility in the world, legal assistance and other emergency aid.

“They’re not barred from the installation,” Dykstra said. “They’re entitled to medical care.”

In some cases, ID holders may have been able to use some overseas commissaries and exchanges. But it’s not allowed under the SOFA in Japan, said Capt. Richelle Dowdell, a U.S. Forces Japan spokeswoman.

“You’re not supposed to be able to use the commissary or BX if you’re not SOFA status,” she said.

The prohibition is entirely based on SOFA rules. ID holders can use commissaries, exchanges and other facilities if they move to the States — something survivors might not be prepared to do.

Glory Romero, a Philippines native married to a 2nd Brigade soldier deployed to the Middle East from South Korea, would return to her family in the Philippines.

“If something bad happens, I would move back to my home and stay with my family,” Romero said in a telephone interview.

She isn’t a U.S. citizen, so she’s unsure what benefits she would have as a widowed military spouse.

“It all seems very complicated. Some of the benefits would be worth keeping, but some of them would not be worth all the paperwork. I’m sure the military will have people to help if something happens. It’s probably easy for that in the Philippines, since there are many former military.”

While she doesn’t like thinking about it, she has talked with her husband about “emergency” plans in case something happens — something legal and casualty assistance officers suggest all servicemembers and their families do.

“Nobody likes to face the ‘what ifs,’ but we all know we should,” Johnson said. “Families [otherwise] have to make some tough decisions at a very bad time, especially if they’re grieving.”

Denver McClintock, 49, of Uijongbu, South Korea, is married to a South Korean national. A former Army and Navy special operations officer, he’s now a Defense Department employee deployed to the Middle East as the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (Strikeforce) safety officer. Before leaving, he made a few preparations.

“I went to the JAG before I came [to Kuwait]. I knew eventually I would be coming here and wanted to be prepared,” he said. “I drafted a will and a living will in the event I end up a vegetable and gave her a general power of attorney.”

But McClintock didn’t discuss too much with his wife.

“My wife doesn’t want to talk about it. The women don’t want to hear that you might die. They don’t want to contemplate that it might happen,” he said.

Army 2nd Lt. Valerie Manuel has seen the effect of that, during her monthlong stint as the Camp Zama casualty assistance officer, the person responsible for helping a grieving family after the death of a servicemember.

Manuel said when spouses are unsure of their options, it can make the devastation worse.

After notifying a family of a death, Army casualty assistance officers — called casualty assistance representatives by the Air Force and casualty assistance calls officers by the Navy — pass the command’s condolences and begin walking survivors through the maze of paperwork and details.

“Your job is to take them through everything, to pretty much ease their burden,” Manuel said. “When you’re grieving, the last thing you want to do is deal with paperwork.”

While serving as CAO, Manuel assisted an 80-year-old spouse of a community member who died — someone who had retired from the military after serving in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, who later retired from civilian duty at Camp Zama.

His widow, a naturalized American born in Japan, needed help figuring out pensions, insurance policies and other paperwork.

“It was difficult because she didn’t have all the paperwork she needed,” Manuel said.

That stress is hard enough. It could be worse for widows who don’t speak English and have no community to fall back on.

Manuel said servicemembers should make sure spouses are aware of all options and discuss them. They can visit the casualty assistance office, legal office and family support centers at installations to talk about the what-ifs.

“For a lot of servicemembers, if they’re married to foreigners, the women don’t seem to know what the finances are,” she said. “They need to make sure their spouse is involved.”

— Seth Robson and Joe Giordono contributed to this report.

Survivors’ benefits

A servicemember’s next-of-kin is entitled to a variety of benefits, depending on the member’s status at the time of death, cause and location of death (whether in combat, for example), and other factors.

Commands assign the next of kin a casualty assistance officer to help wade through the grief and the paperwork to claim many state, federal and commercial benefits. Benefits can be financial and service-related.

In November, Congress passed the Military Family Tax Relief Act, which doubled the military death gratuity payment from $6,000 to $12,000 and made the entire payment tax-exempt. It had been only partially tax-free.

Families also can receive unpaid pay and allowances, burial assistance and payments for life insurance, Social Security, pensions and other programs depending on their situation.

Here are some of the benefits available to a surviving spouse or dependent regardless of where they reside. For more information on federal benefits for spouses, children and parents, visit: www.vba.va.gov/bln/dependents.

Base services

Identification card-holding survivors in the United States can use the commissary, exchange, medical facilities, Morale, Welfare and Recreation programs and legal and other services on a space-available basis. Overseas, survivors with IDs can access an installation and receive medical and general legal assistance on a space-available basis.

Education

The VA Dependents Educational Assistance program can provide spouses and dependent children assistance for up to 45 months over 10 years.

A servicemember’s life-insurance beneficiary also is eligible for any unused contributions to the Montgomery GI Bill education program. Visit www.gibill.va.gov/education/C35pam.htm for information.

Many colleges, universities, service aid societies and other organizations offer scholarships for dependents of servicemembers killed in the line of duty.

Civil service job preference

Surviving spouse may receive a 10-point veterans service preference if active-duty servicemember served in a wartime or peacetime campaign.

Burial benefits

Servicemembers are eligible for some burial payments as well as a grave site in any Veterans Affairs national cemetery with space; free care of the grave; a government headstone or marker; and a presidential memorial certificate. Visit www.cem.va.gov for information.

Dependency and indemnity compensation

At the monthly rate of $967 for a surviving spouse, or more if there are dependent children.

Life insurance

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, most servicemembers have the highest level, $250,000. Visit www.insurance.va.gov for information.

Citizenship and immigration

If a servicemember dies in combat, his or her immediate family may have preferential consideration in terms of immigration and citizenship. Visit http://uscis.gov/graphics/citizenship/survivor.htm for information.

— Juliana Gittler

State benefits

Some states, including California, Idaho and Michigan, offer no state death benefits to servicemembers.

Many states pay benefits based on or equivalent to the states’ worker’s compensation provisions. Some pay only those killed while on state active duty. According to the Air National Guard, states offering servicemembers specific injury or death benefits include:

• Alaska: Benefits not to exceed $7,500 plus worker’s compensation. Death benefit to surviving spouse of Guard member if deceased member served a minimum of five years. Lump-sum equivalent for all time served at $100 per month for each month served.• Arizona: Worker’s comp based on military pay but not less than $400 per month.• Connecticut: State active duty: worker’s comp. State or federal duty: $20,000 to beneficiary.• Delaware: Service of state: disability based on larger of civilian or military wages. State active duty: $150,000 to beneficiary; tuition for surviving children at state colleges.• Florida: State active duty: retained on duty up to one year plus medical costs, after one year placed on worker's comp. Survivor benefits of $25,000 plus worker’s comp if killed/dies of injury.• Georgia: State active duty: receive pay, allowance, medical expenses for 90 days, if disabled after 90 days, benefits same as federal, including death gratuity, widows pension and funeral expenses up to $500.• Illinois: $50,000 compensation paid to beneficiary of members killed on state active duty.• Indiana: State active duty: members receive pay, allowance and medical expenses for 90 days. If disabled after 90 days, benefits same as federal, including death gratuity, widows pension and funeral expenses up to $500.• Kansas: State service: Permanently disabled; $120/month plus 12½ percent base pay. Surviving spouse - same plus $43 to $77 per child per month; children — free tuition at state college; up to $500 funeral expenses.• Kentucky: State active duty: worker's comp, college for dependents if member killed on state active duty. $25,000 to spouse or child if death is in line of duty.• Massachusetts: Active duty: $25/week for 200 weeks or lump-sum payment of $5,000.• Minnesota: Killed in line of duty: surviving dependents receive 100 percent tuition at state post-secondary schools.• Mississippi: State active duty: survivors’ benefits; $500 burial allowance, $25,000 state insurance policy for accidental death.• Nevada: State active duty: medical care plus pay and allowances during incapacitation.• New York: Members may claim pension survivors’ benefits available to dependents depending on nature and extent of disability.• Ohio: State active duty: death benefit paid if adjutant general determines funds are available.• Pennsylvania: Worker’s comp plus $100/month to spouse of member killed on duty; up to $300/month for widows with four children. Tuition credit for dependent children.• Puerto Rico: Life insurance and funeral expenses.• Texas: Disability: $440/month plus 12½ percent of base pay; survivors - same plus $1,830 for funeral expenses; surviving dependent child - $280/month, adjusted for additional children.• Utah: Relief that the Legislature deems proper.• Vermont: Worker’s comp and Guard scholarships at state college for children of Guard members killed on duty (except when on federal active duty).• Virgin Islands: Four-year scholarship at University of Virgin Islands for children under 25 years old in some circumstances.• West Virginia: Pay and allowances; compensation to survivors as provided by state legislation.

— Julianna Gittler


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