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Re-paying the ultimate price

When President Bush proposes his budget for fiscal year 2006 next week, it will include a request to increase government payments by $250,000 to the families of U.S. soldiers killed in war zones.

It’s the least he could do. And he should do more, because of stories like this:

For more than six months, she awoke in the darkness at 4:45 a.m., got herself ready, awakened her three children — 9-year-old twins and a 2-year-old baby boy — got them ready, dropped the baby off at the babysitter and the twins at daycare and made it to work by 7 a.m. to begin her full-time shift. She left work at 4 p.m., picked up the kids, took them home, cooked dinner, helped with homework, resolved sibling conflicts and put the boys to bed before retiring to hers, where she would watch CNN until she fell asleep.

That’s my mom, who repeated that routine countless times without a thank-you, without a relative closer than 600 miles to help out, and most notably, without a husband — as he was on the other side of the world serving in Operation Desert Storm. My father returned ome safely, but not all fathers do.

Stories like this appear all across the country. Life in the military can be tough and unforgiving, and that’s why military families deserve the best from our government.

It’s why compensation for the unthinkable must be available.

Bush’s boost is not inadequate, it just isn’t equal to the loss — nothing possibly could be, obviously — but it is practical, justified, necessary and, sadly, grossly overdue.

Before this proposal, the tax-free “death gratuity” was a disgustingly low $12,420 (before 2003, it was $6,000). Now, the money disbursed to the family of a soldier who died in the line of duty is $100,000. The plan also calls for an extra $150,000 boost to the current $250,000 life-insurance plan offered to every service member and is retroactive to the day the U.S. launched its invasion of Afghanistan.

In comparison, the families of those who perished on Sept. 11 have received an average of $2.1 million from the government.

Not to belittle those who died in the World Trade Center attacks, but doesn’t it seem unfair that the family of a man or woman who willingly puts his or her life at risk receives less than those that were in the wrong place at the wrong time?

Bush has drawn criticism for his plan, most notably from Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the highest-ranking Democrat on the Armed Forces committee. Levin said he agrees with Bush’s plan, but said the money should also “apply to all service members on active duty.”

Under Bush’s plan, only the family members of those who die in Pentagon-designated “war zones” receive the benefit increases.

Bush should heed this criticism and change his proposal to cover all deaths of every soldier on active duty. The attacks of Sept. 11 essentially made the U.S. a “war zone.” If a soldier dies training in the U.S. to fight in the war on terrorism, that soldier’s family deserves the same benefits as the family of a soldier who died in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Bush owes at least that much to a military that has supported him through the ups and downs of his time in office.

Under the current structure of the proposal, the family of a soldier who died outside of a war zone would receive the original — and unacceptable — $12,420.

The first-year cost of these new benefits would be $459 million. According to the Pentagon, 1,571 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq and Afghanistan so far.

It is hard, if not impossible, to assign a price tag to a human life. This way, if tragedy strikes, the government can offer the comfort of financial stability in a family’s otherwise destabilized life.

A family with a loss as solemn as this certainly earned at least that.

John Calkins is a junior majoring in journalism.