The Military: Now Families Face The Cost Of War

After the shocking news, the tears and the funerals, the families of GIs killed in Iraq face a more prosaic concern: how will they pay the bills? In today's older, career-oriented military, a far greater percentage of fallen servicemen will leave behind a spouse and children than in previous wars. It's a small solace that those dependents have already begun receiving survivors' benefits that could be payable for decades. The benefits start flowing within hours of a serviceman's death, when his family receives a "death gratuity" of $6,000. Then comes a life-insurance payout: today most military personnel take out a policy worth $250,000, and some buy supplemental coverage. Under a Veterans Affairs program called Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, the spouse of a fallen serviceman receives $948 per month (plus $237 per child) until death or remarriage; the payouts are adjusted for inflation each year. The families also get three years of free medical care and generous college benefits.

There's mixed evidence of how well military families regain their financial footing. According to a Department of Veterans Affairs 2001 report, the average family's income drops from $55,300 to $34,500 in the two years following a serviceman's death; in a survey, roughly one half rated their financial situation as "good." Survivors of older and higher-ranking personnel are usually better off. Amanda Jordan, a Connecticut paralegal whose Marine husband, Phillip, was killed in Iraq last month, isn't very worried about her finances. The Jordans had insurance and savings, and she may use the military's educational benefits to go back to law school. She's most concerned with how her 6-year-old son, Tyler, will cope with the loss.

Despite the government's efforts to provide for dead servicemen's families, some say the benefits fall short--especially when compared with the generous safety net supporting the families of 9-11 victims. Those families can apply to the federally funded 9-11 Victim Compensation Fund; payouts average $1 million-plus. "It's horrible what happened to those families, but when a servicemen gives his life for this country, his family should be taken care of," says Aseneth Blackwell, president of the Gold Star Wives of America, a military widows group. Kelly Gibbons, widow of a Special Forces pilot who died in Afghanistan in January, has only sympathy for the 9-11 victims. But she also believes the nation has a higher obligation to its volunteer GIs than to civilian 9-11 victims. "These people who never even thought to put their lives on the line for anybody else are getting millions of dollars," she says. Gibbons's survivor benefits will total just $1,422 a month, barely enough to cover her mortgage.

Congress may take steps to help. The Senate already voted to retroactively double the "death gratuity" to $12,000; the measure awaits House approval. Congress may increase other benefits, too. After war, "there's usually a larger groundswell of support from the public and more grass-roots political pressure" on Congress to increase benefits, says a House staffer. For America's newest military widows, that would make rebuilding a life a tiny bit easier.