Public Editor

October 13, 2013

‘Military death benefits’ is too generic a term for a very specific payment

Journalists referring to the D.C. showdown over “military death benefits” have mostly missed out on a crucial distinction that affects millions of people. The payments apply only to those who die while in service.

When a veteran dies, his or her survivors are automatically entitled to a payment of $100,000, according to a story in The Kansas City Star. Or at least that’s how it looked to one vet who called me last week.

He was referring to the lead story on the front page Oct. 10, which addressed the hot-button issue of how the partial government shutdown had kept the Pentagon from paying out what many news sources have been referring to as “military death benefits.” The private Fisher House Foundation had offered to make the payments, and President Barack Obama urged Congress to enact legislation resuming them. He signed a bill restoring the payouts on Oct. 10.

The Star’s story, by James Rosen of McClatchy’s Washington bureau, described the disbursements as “$100,000 payments to the families of deceased military members.”

The reader who phoned me quite reasonably read that to mean it applies to all veterans, active duty or not. But he knew that couldn’t true. There’s no way such a large amount of money could really go to so many.

“I called the V.A. to ask about it, and they set me straight,” he told me. “(The Star) needs to take careful steps to show people that lots of reporters are confusing people by not explaining this. These payouts are only for a specific type of death, under specific circumstances.”

That’s exactly right. The now-restored payments are what the military calls the Death Gratuity. The Army explains its version of the program, which is similar in the other branches of the armed forces:

“The U.S. Army provides a one-time lump sum Death Gratuity of $100,000 to the primary next of kin of a Soldier who dies while on active duty. Its purpose is to help the survivors in their readjustment and to aid them in meeting immediate expenses incurred.”

On the other hand, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs does offer a number of benefits to the survivors of vets, including burial, survivors’ pensions, educational assistance and home loans, depending on a number of eligibility factors. But they’re distinct from the Death Gratuity.

So I agree fully with my caller that the crucial detail is often missing from this debate — that the payments apply only to those who die while in service.

A different Page A1 story on Oct. 8 drew this distinction correctly.

The number of active military members is huge, but it is only a small fraction of the almost 22 million veterans in the country.

The Star, and all other news sources that have been reporting on this political football, should have been more specific about the Death Gratuity from the get-go. It affects many, but far fewer than the generic “military death benefits” implies.

The name game

Readers occasionally ask me how to pronounce the names of some Star staffers. The most common:

Yael Abouhalkah: YALE ah-boo-HAHL-kuh

Keith Chrostowski: krih-stow-ski, evenly accented

Lewis Diuguid: DOO-gid

Brent Frazee: fruh-ZEE

Cindy Hoedel: HOE-duhl

Tammy Ljungblad: Think "young blood."

Sam Mellinger: That’s a hard “g.”

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