by Max Brantley
U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor won Senate approval today of a measure that will allow a $100,000 death benefit for the family of Samson Luke, who was on weekend National Guard duty at Fort Chaffee in 2010 but died while spending the night in his home nearby in Greenwood, as he'd been authorized to do. The Army had resisted payment of the claim because he didn't die on the base.
Under the Pryor measure, benefits can be paid if a soldier dies while remaining overnight "in the vicinity of the site of the inactive-duty training."
The measure is part of the 2012 defense budget, which is expected to pass the Senate next week. It will have to be reconciled with House legislation and Pryor said he was "cautiously optimistic" the measure would survive the process.
During consideration of a broad defense bill, the U.S. Senate today passed Senator Mark Pryor’s amendment to ensure military families, including the Luke family, receive death benefits following a soldier’s death during weekend drill training. The amendment passed unanimously.
Pryor said Captain Samson Luke, 34-years-old of Greenwood, Arkansas, was a committed and decorated active-duty officer who deployed for combat in Iraq twice and continued to serve as an Arkansas Army National Guardsmen. During a required training weekend at Fort Chaffee, Luke was authorized to spend Saturday night with his family at home, twelve miles away from base, and return to the training site the next morning. He passed away that evening, January 10, 2010 from a heart condition, leaving behind his wife, Miranda, and four young children. The Army decided that because Captain Luke passed away at home, not on base or at a local hotel, the family is not eligible for the $100,000 death gratuity or funeral expense benefits they would otherwise receive.
“Our military families make a lot of sacrifices in choosing to serve our country. The Luke family is no different, seeing off their husband and dad twice for Iraq and then losing him during a strenuous drill weekend. They certainly don’t deserve to get pencil-whipped by the Army over death benefits. That’s why when and if there is a grey area, we owe it to our military families to err on the side of the soldier,” Pryor said. “I’m proud to work with Miranda to right this wrong for her family and any others in a similar situation.”
The law states death benefits are allocated if a soldier dies while remaining overnight at or “in the vicinity of the site of the inactive-duty training.” To address what the Army considers a grey area, Pryor’s amendment clarifies Congress’ original intent of the law to ensure service members who live in the “vicinity” of their training site can return home in the evening without losing death benefits.
The measure is now part of the Fiscal Year 2012 Defense Authorization Act, which is expected to pass the full Senate this week. Differences will be reconciled with the version to be passed by the House of Representatives. Pryor is cautiously optimistic the Luke amendment will stay intact through the legislative process. In addition, the Secretary of the Army is taking a second look at the Luke case following calls from the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.