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FORWARD OPERATING BASE WILSON, Iraq — American soldiers in Iraq say they welcome the proposals to nearly double some death benefits.

Increases are “long overdue” for survivors’ benefits such as the death gratuity, “because $12,000 barely covers the cost of a funeral,” said 2nd Lt. Kenneth Rivard, 3rd Squadron, 278th Regimental Combat Team, from the Tennessee National Guard.

The Department of Defense is proposing to raise the death gratuity to $100,000 from $12,420 currently, and the maximum life insurance caps to $400,000 under Servicemembers Group Life Insurance, or SGLI, from $250,000. The DOD would pay for the first $150,000 in life insurance for all troops in combat zones.

One point of debate separating defense officials from Congress and military leaders is who should be eligible.

Officials from all four services testified in Congress earlier this month that they would prefer to see death benefits extended to all active-duty personnel and reserve forces, not just those in war zones.

Death benefits are a hot button issue: “Rush Limbaugh talks a lot about how soldiers get a fraction of what a civilian would receive” in death benefits, said Rivard, 32, a married information technology employee in Nashville, Tenn., in civilian life.

The conservative talk-show host has criticized payouts to the families of firefighters and civilians killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which averaged $1 million, compared to the small amount paid to the survivors of soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But in an informal poll of soldiers at FOB Wilson, just slightly more than half said they believe only those in combat zones should be eligible for the increased death payout.

The odds of getting killed increase exponentially when you step into a combat zone, said Sgt. Roy Scott Hammons, with the 3rd Squadron, 278th Regimental Combat Team, from the Tennessee National Guard.

The proposed death benefits should be made available mainly to soldiers in combat zones, said Hammons, 44, from Jackson, Tenn. Only select personnel outside war zones, such as submariners and special operations troops “who undergo very, very hazardous training,” should be included, Hammons said.

The proposed death benefit increases are projected to cost about $459 million the first year, then $280 million in 2006, with retroactive payouts to the beneficiaries of soldiers killed on or after Oct. 7, 2001.

It remains to be seen how many soldiers would take advantage of the proposed increases.

Only about 9 percent of newly enlisted soldiers are married, according to Army data. However, that figure increases to 42 percent by the end of the first enlistment.

Rivard encourages his soldiers with dependents to buy the maximum coverage, which costs about $16 a month for the current $250,000 in coverage, he said. Yet only slightly more than half of the 3-278th RCT soldiers interviewed at FOB Wilson said they’re paying for the maximum SGLI coverage.

One of those with maximum coverage is Cpl. Michael Henley, 28, who is single. Just because he has no children doesn’t mean he doesn’t have any obligations.

“If something happens to me, it’ll put my goddaughter through college,” Henley said.


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