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Senate revises death benefits for reservists

Dec. 1, 2011 - 06:16PM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 1, 2011 - 06:16PM  |  
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A retroactive change in death benefits that would extend payment to reservists who die at home during drill weekends passed the Senate on Thursday by voice vote.

Retroactive to Jan. 1, 2010, death gratuity and burial benefits provided for active-duty deaths will be extended to reservists who die while at home during or between successive days of inactive duty training, under the amendment to the 2012 defense authorization bill sponsored by Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark..

Pryor's interest is the result of a 2010 death of Army National Guard Capt. Samson Luke, a member of the 142nd Field Artillery Regiment, who lived about 15 minutes from his weekend training site of Fort Chaffee, Ark. While many members of his unit stayed in hotels on the weekend, Luke went home, where he died in his sleep after spending the day working in a cold warehouse.

Luke's family initially received the military's $100,000 death gratuity and $8,000 in other death benefits but were forced to repay the money for what Pryor said was "a classic case of getting pencil-whipped by the government."

Current law provides death benefits if a service member dies on an installation or "in the vicinity of the site of inactive duty training."

In this case, the Defense Department determined that Luke was not eligible because he had gone home. Pryor said he battled for a year with the Pentagon trying to get a more liberal interpretation of the word "vicinity," but "we are at a standstill."

"It was a weekend where he was doing his required training weekend. He was authorized, because he lived so close to the post, to spend Saturday night with his wife and his four young children at his home instead of staying on the post. In fact, he wasn't authorized to stay on the post because he was so close to home. He had to be off post," Pryor said.

"Had Captain Luke stayed on base or had he stayed at a hotel at the taxpayers' expense or had he been traveling to or from his post — his training — the family would receive these benefits," Pryor said.

In fact, Pryor said, a case could be made that Luke was on duty the night he died.

"When a person is on a National Guard training weekend, as Capt. Luke was, that person is under orders for 48 continuous hours. Wherever they are sleeping, wherever they are traveling, whatever they are doing, they are on orders; they are on duty."

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