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Military Families Say Increase in Death Benefit Is Long Overdue


For nearly 100 years, the U.S. Defense Department has presented a check to the survivors of servicemen and women killed in the line of duty. The so-called military death gratuity was meant to help grieving families cover expenses in an era when life insurance for soldiers was all but unavailable. Originally set at six months' pay - a few hundred dollars back in 1908 - the amount has gradually increased to the current benefit of just over $12,000.

In his 2006 budget, President Bush has proposed boosting the amount to $100,000 for soldiers killed in combat zones. Under the plan, the government would also increase the limit of life insurance coverage for service members from $250,000 to $400,000.

Karen Spears Zakaraias is among the members of military families who believe a re-evaluation of the death benefit is long overdue. She was only nine when her father told her and her 12-year old brother that he was going to Vietnam to fight communism.

"I had no idea what communism was…I didn't understand any of that," she says. "The only thing I understood was that my father was telling me he was leaving. And that frightened me because I knew I would miss him."

A few months later, the family received word that Sgt. David Spears had been killed on the battlefield. "The only thing I remember is my brother screaming." Ms. Spears Zakaraias recalls. "Like any younger sister, I looked up to my brother and I thought he was he-man, superman. To see my 12-year-old brother beating on the wall and screaming, 'Daddy is dead, Daddy is dead,' that terrified me beyond belief."

Not only did the children lose their Daddy, they also lost the woman their mother had been. The 29-year-old stay-at-home mom -- who hadn't graduated from high school and had never held a job -- suddenly became the sole supporter of the family.

In 1965, when Sgt. Spears was killed, the military death gratuity was $3,000 and the life insurance policy paid just $10,000. Karen Spears Zakaraias says that was not enough to cover the financial, educational and emotional costs of starting over. That's why she supports increasing the death benefit.

"Raising the payment doesn't take away the pain." Ms. Spears Zakaraias says. "But what it does do is give that surviving spouse other options. If my mother had had another option, she wouldn't have left us unsupervised as kids. My mother would have stayed at home. She would have seen us through our high school years, and then gone to work, if that what she chose to do. But if she wasn't there, she could have hired somebody to be there. In her situation, those weren't options."

Like the mother of Karen Spears Zakaraias, Jackie Livadais also was 29 when her husband was killed. At the time of his death in Iraq in 2003, she had two little boys and was pregnant with her third son. She agrees that a higher death benefit would help the families left behind, but argues that emotional support may be even more important.

"I'm completely behind that because, honestly, I feel like it's nothing less than what they had earned," Ms. Livadais says. "They have earned that and more. And the sacrifice that they give goes beyond that to their families. Also, whether you do it with your husband or without him, that transition from military to civilian is so hard. It's difficult to find your place. So, in those kinds of transition, it would be nice if we had some assistance, support -- something like a support group -- because you really miss your military family when you go to civilian. It's really a shock."

While no amount of money can ease the shock of losing a loved one in battle, military families - joined by veterans groups and many in Congress -- say increased benefits can ease the process of starting over without their fallen heroes.

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