Amendment rejects two-tiered military death gratuity

By Tom Philpott: PNT columnist

The Senate approved an amendment from Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., that rejects Bush administration plans to establish a two-tiered military death gratuity and to limit retroactive payment of $238,000 in enhanced death benefits only to families of members who die in combat assignments.
The Kerry amendment, approved by voice vote on Wednesday, would allow higher retroactive death payments for an additional 3,000 families, those who lost loved ones to non-combat-related accidents or illnesses since Oct. 7, 2001, the start of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.
The death benefit initiatives are part of the fiscal 2005 wartime emergency supplemental appropriations bill (HR 1268) nearing final passage.
The House passed its version March 16. It would raise the current $12,400 lump-sum death gratuity for next-of-kin to $100,000 and apply the increase retroactively to most active duty deaths since fall of 2001.
It also would raise maximum coverage under Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance, from $250,000 to $400,000. That increase too would be paid retroactively for military deaths since Oct. 7, 2001, and also tied to “performance of duty,’’ a term left to Defense officials to interpret.
The Senate bill proposed identical increases but, as the administration recommended, it would restrict retroactive payments, and future payment of the $100,000 death gratuity, to deaths resulting from wounds, injuries or illnesses tied to combat or to service in a combat zone.
Military leaders and service associations urged the Senate to join the House in voting for a single death gratuity. But in a “statement of administration policy’’ last month, the Office of Management and Budget urged the House instead to get behind “the President’s version’’ of the death gratuity “which specially honors those service members who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the Global War on Terrorism.’’
The House plan, OMB said, would cost up to $500 million more than the administration’s death benefit package.
A Republican motion to table Kerry’s amendment before it came to a vote lost 75-to-25, and 27 Republicans sided with Kerry.
The Senate also approved a second Kerry amendment to allow survivors of service members killed in action to stay in government quarters for up to a year, versus only 180 days under current law. Some of the services have been allowing their survivors longer stays in base quarters.
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With the Army National Guard likely to miss its recruiting target for a second consecutive year, Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, has unveiled 10 new and ambitious recruiting and retention incentives that he wants Congress to authorize this year. They include:
• Raising the ceiling on enlistment bonuses, both for the regular Army and reserve components, to $40,000. If authority is approved, the Army National Guard would boost enlistment bonuses $100 million this year and $240 million in 2006. Enlistment bonuses offered by the Air National Guard would climb by $16 million in 2005, $26 million in 2006.
• Spending $400 million in “quick ship’’ bonuses to entice recruits to enter service in off-season months or to quickly fill under-used training pipelines. These amounts would be paid on top of enlistment bonuses.
• Offering prior-service soldiers with remaining service obligations a bonus of up to $15,000 (versus current $50 a month) and new flexibility to change occupational specialties.
• Doubling to $4,000 the current $2,000 bonus offer for converting a soldier’s military occupational specialty to a skill in greater demand. This would be separate from, and could be paid concurrently with, other bonuses.
• Offering a new $2,500 “Every Soldier a Recruiter Bonus’’ to current Army National Guard soldiers who refer qualified prospect into the Guard. Payment would be tied to prospect’s qualifying in an occupational specialty. The Army Guard would spend $25 million a year on this program, in 2005 and 2006, and the Air National Guard half that amount.

Tom Philpott can be contacted at Mßilitary Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at:
milupdate@aol.com