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I grew up in coastal North Carolina. You probably know the area for its beaches, but when I was a kid, it was better known as a military hub. Within two hours of my house, there were at least seven military bases in my state: Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune (Jacksonville, NC); U.S. Army Fort Bragg (Fayetteville, NC); Seymour Johnson Air Force Base (Goldsboro, NC); Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point (Cherry Point, NC); Pope Air Force Base (Manchester, NC); Camp Mackall Army Base (Southern Pines, NC); and Simmons Army Air Field (Fort Bragg, NC).
I vividly remember riding up Highway 172 through Camp Lejeune (you can’t do that anymore) and listening to the military planes fly over our house in summer. It was probably no surprise to anyone, then, when both of my brothers joined the military. Ironically, they both joined the U.S. Navy (the one branch of the service not located near my house).
You learn a lot about the sacrifices that military personnel make when your own family is involved. We realized, for example, that we were lucky that every time one of my brothers shipped out, he came back. But we also knew that wasn’t always the case.
Approximately 1.4 million U.S. service members have lost their lives in wars and conflicts around the world; nearly half of those who died did so in the Civil War. Post Civil War, the largest numbers of military deaths are attributable to World War II (405,399) and World War I (116,516). More recently, over 8,000 servicemen and women have died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, as of November 2019, more than 5 million veterans receive benefits, together with more than 600,000 children, parents, and surviving spouses. That includes 36 surviving spouses of those who served in the Spanish-American War and one child from a service member in the Civil War.
Over the years, we’ve struggled with how to honor and compensate those who gave everything to serve our country. That includes sorting out benefits for those who are left behind. Here’s a summary of some assistance, much of which is tax-free, that might be available to surviving families:
- Burial Benefits. The Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) National Cemetery Administration maintains 142 national cemeteries in 40 states and Puerto Rico as well as 33 soldier’s lots and monument sites. Burial benefits include a gravesite in any of those cemeteries with available space, opening and closing of the grave, perpetual care, a Government headstone or marker, a burial flag, and a Presidential Memorial Certificate, at no cost to the family: the VA can help arrange honors for burials at VA national cemeteries. In addition, the VA will pay a burial allowance or reimbursement of up to $2,000 if a death is service-connected ($1,500 for deaths before September 11, 2001). If a veteran is buried in a VA national cemetery, some or all of the cost of transporting the deceased may be reimbursed. (Many states have state veterans cemeteries with similar eligibility requirements.)
- Military Funeral Honors. Upon request, the Department of Defense will provide military funeral honors consisting of folding and the presenting of the United States flag and the playing of “Taps.” A funeral honors detail consists of two or more uniformed members of the armed forces, with at least one member from the deceased’s branch of service. Family members should inform their funeral director if they want military funeral honors. This is a relatively recent development: it wasn’t until January 1, 2000, that Public Law 106-65 made it mandatory to provide military honors for any eligible veteran if requested by the family.
- Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC). DIC is a benefit payable to eligible survivors of military personnel who died in the line of duty, or eligible survivors of veterans whose death resulted from a service-related injury or disease. It’s tax-free when paid to the surviving spouse, child, or parent of military personnel who died while on active duty, active duty for training, or inactive duty training, or to survivors of veterans who died from their service-connected disabilities.
- Parents’ Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (Parents’ DIC). Parents’ DIC is an income-based monthly benefit payable to the parent(s) of military personnel who died in the line of duty or veterans whose death resulted from a service-related injury or disease. Like DIC, Parents’ DIC is tax-free.
- Survivors Benefit Pension (SBP). The Survivors Benefit Pension, sometimes called a Death Pension, is a benefit payable to a low-income, un-remarried surviving spouse and/or unmarried child or children of a deceased Veteran with wartime service. The pension is based on annual family income, which must be less than an amount set by Congress. Like DIC, the SBP is tax-free.
- Death Gratuity. A death gratuity is a one-time payment to surviving family members deal following the loss of military personnel. The gratuity, which now stands at $100,000, is tax-free (for federal and state purposes) and is generally available to families whose loved ones died in active duty or those who meet other criteria.
- Survivors and Dependent Educational Assistance (DEA). The DEA program offers education and training opportunities to eligible dependents of those who died while on active duty or as a result of a service-related condition. These benefits can be used for degree and certificate programs, apprenticeship, and on-the-job training. And remember, unlike other education plans, payments you receive for education, training, or subsistence from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) are tax-free.
- Tricare. Surviving spouses and unmarried children of deceased active duty or retired service members may be eligible for subsidized government health care. Claims are cost-shared at the active duty family member rate for three years after a service member’s death, and then at the retiree rate. Widows or widowers remain eligible until they remarry. And, children remain eligible until age 21, with some exceptions. These healthcare benefits are typically tax-free.
- Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH). If a service member was eligible for BAH at his or her death, his or her spouse and dependents are entitled to either remain in government housing for a year or to relocate to private quarters and receive a one year of Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) or Overseas Housing Allowance (OHA). In most cases, BAH is tax-free.
More benefits may be available depending on your circumstances and your elections under a Survivor Benefits Plan. Always check with your benefits administrator. If you’re not sure where to go, the VA has a helpful online tool to direct you.
If you’d like to pay your respects, all 142 VA national cemeteries will be open for visitation throughout the Memorial Day weekend. According to the VA, families, and friends are welcome to place flowers or individual flags at gravesites. However, due to COVID-19, visitors are asked to adhere to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), state and local health and safety guidelines, and local travel restrictions.
We remember. Today, and every day.
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