LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — A U.S. senator from Arkansas is trying to change federal rules to allow the family of an Army National Guard soldier to collect his death benefits, even though he died at home while he was on weekend training duty.
Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor introduced an amendment to a defense bill on Tuesday that would permit death benefits for soldiers who die while on duty "in the vicinity" of their bases.
Capt. Samson Luke, a member of the 142nd Field Artillery Regiment, died in January 2010 of heart problems while he was on weekend training duty at Fort Chaffee in western Arkansas. He had spent the day in a freezing warehouse working with his unit before going to his home in Greenwood, where he went to bed and never woke up.
Luke's widow, Miranda, said her husband returned home because he lived within 15 minutes of the base and staying with his family rather than at a hotel, like many others in his unit, saved taxpayers money.
Miranda Luke said she was initially told that the family was entitled to the $100,000 death gratuity and up to $8,000 in funeral costs. Shortly after her husband's burial, however, she learned that the Army's casualty and mortuary affairs branch had denied the death benefits because he died at home and not "in the vicinity" of the inactive-duty training facility.
"We were actually given all the benefits, and then they were taken away three weeks later," she told the Stephens Media Washington bureau. "The local funeral home has yet to be paid. I would not have made all those arrangements if I did not have signed paperwork in my hand."
Pryor's amendment would be retroactive and apply to Luke, allowing his family to collect a $100,000 death benefit and a funeral stipend.
Efforts to resolve the matter with the Defense Department have been unsuccessful, Pryor said.
"The bean counters over at the Pentagon have really tried to save a little money at his family's expense," he said. "This is a classic case of getting pencil-whipped by the government."
Bill Costello, a spokesman for the Army Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Operations Center, didn't immediately return a call Wednesday from The Associated Press.
Keith Moore, a spokesman for the Arkansas National Guard, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that he hoped lawmakers could more clearly define Army regulations on death benefits.
"The language is a bit ambiguous," Moore said.
Army regulations state that soldiers are eligible for benefits if they die "between successive periods of inactive-duty training, at or in the vicinity of the site of the inactive-duty training, if the site is outside reasonable commuting distance from the member's residence."
Pryor's amendment would add the following language, conferring benefits in the case of a death that happens "while staying at the Reserve's residence, when so authorized by proper authority, during the period of such inactive duty training or between successive days of training."
Pryor said the Congressional Budget Office had not calculated how much the measure might cost, but he estimated providing benefits in such cases would most likely cost taxpayers less than $1 million over 10 years.
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