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With troops' freedom to choose beneficiaries comes greater responsibility

  • Published
  • By John J. Kruzel
  • American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON (AFPN) -- Starting in July, servicemembers can choose to whom a $100,000 death gratuity will be disbursed if they are killed in action.

Currently, troops can assign half the posthumous payment to recipients of their preference, with the remainder paid according to a hierarchy determined by the Defense Department: first to the spouse, or if unmarried, to children, then grandchildren, followed by parents and, barring these antecedents, the next of kin.

But when the policy shift becomes effective July 1, troops should use caution while exercising their new freedom to bequeath, one Pentagon official warned.

"I think that members need to realize that, with this added flexibility, there is responsibility," Gary McGee, a program analyst for the Compensation Directorate in the Office of Military Personnel Policy, said. "They need to act in a mature manner when they make these decisions."

Congress established the first death gratuity in 1908, stipulating that survivors of Army, Navy and Marine personnel killed in service receive the equivalent of six months of the servicemembers' pay. The original purpose was to help fill the financial gap resulting from the lack of a government life insurance program at that time, according background papers on military compensation.

Survivors of military personnel who die as a result of hostile actions in a designated combat operation or combat zone or while training for combat or performing hazardous duty are eligible for the benefit.

The payout grew from a $3,000 minimum in 1956 to a standard $6,000 benefit for families of fallen Persian Gulf War participants, to a $12,420 disbursement in 2004. In a dramatic leap the next year, a retroactive gratuity was established to pay $100,000 to survivors of those who died since Oct. 1, 2002, covering the more than 4,450 Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Lawmakers decided to increase the gratuity's dollar amount, McGee said, to more closely resemble the large payments being disbursed to families of Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack victims. The six-figure disbursement is distributed by the Defense Financing and Accounting Service, which aims to pay beneficiaries within 48 hours of a servicemember's death.

When the policy takes effect this summer, each service branch will adopt a revised version of Department of Defense Form 93, known as the Record of Emergency Data. Troops will then be able to select up to 10 beneficiaries -- regardless of relationships -- allotting the whole of the $100,000 in 10-percent increments.

Mark Ward, the senior program manager of the Casualty, Mortuary and Military Funeral Honors section of the Pentagon's Military Community and Family Policy Office, said the new procedure could have good or bad repercussions, depending on whether troops uphold the death gratuity's "true intent."

"Take the case where you have a spouse and two children, and yet the member says, 'Well, I had 10 great buddies on my baseball team in high school; I'm going to give each of them $10,000,'" he said. "So now all $100,000 is paid to his buddies, and he's still got a wife and kids, and they've got no money."

Single-parent servicemembers without a spouse heir may embrace the new policy more readily than their married counterparts in the armed forces. The most recent available data shows that 249 single-parent troops have died in U.S. operations since October 2002, and 15,922 are deployed.

Mr. Ward said the new policy allows greater flexibility to all demographic groups of the armed forces who die serving their country.

"The overall thrust is to give the servicemember the greatest latitude to determine who gets his or her benefits upon their death," he said.