CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — Shortly before deploying to Afghanistan, Marine Cpl. Zachary Pace asked his platoon sergeant what seemed like a routine question: would his Servicemembers Group Life Insurance policy, popularly known as SGLI, cover him if he was killed in combat.
Three months later, Cpl. Pace was killed after stepping on an improvised explosive device.
His platoon sergeant is still struggling with whether or not his death would have happened if it hadn't been covered by life insurance.
"Would he have been extra careful while planning his patrol routes, checked his five's and twenty-five's?" asked Staff Sgt. Mark Clatcher. "We'll never know."
Pace's death came as the Pentagon has struggled to curb a seemingly random tide of death that has affected troops, especially those in the Middle East, for over a decade.
"We've been in denial about this problem for too long," explained Anthony Munson, who oversees the Pentagon's Operational Risk Management division. "We kept explaining it away with things like poor vehicle armor, or how our soldiers get funneled into choke points by the hundreds of pounds of gear they're wearing, but we never stopped to look at our life insurance packages."
Many private insurance policies contain a "war clause," which exempts them from paying compensation to the policy holder in the event of a firefight, IED attack, or being shot down in flames. In 1965, the U.S. Congress created SGLI for active-duty military, reservists, and veterans to specifically address this problem.
It proved so popular that the Pentagon was forced to start a war in Vietnam that same year to handle all the demands by spouses for combat death benefits.
But now that same military insurance is in the Pentagon's crosshairs, as a new Rand Corporation study shows that service members covered by life insurance are far more likely to die on the battlefield than service members who are not.
In 2005, Congress raised the benefits paid out by SGLI, by $150,000, including an extra $100,000 if they died on active duty. By the end of the year, U.S. battlefield deaths were twice as high as what they'd been just two years prior. For many, the connection is obvious.
"We'd already been examining the proven link between SGLI and suicide," Munson said, "but after Rand came out we started to see a correlation between battlefield fatalities as well."
Munson said the Pentagon will soon be rolling out an experimental programs with the VA to see if cutting benefits and entitlements results in fewer losses on the battlefield.
The Pentagon will have plenty of support for its new approach on Capitol Hill. Sen. Martin James (R-Mo.), a noted budget hawk, recently took to the Senate floor to complain about the outrageous amounts being spent on deceased service members.
"We're paying $59 Billion, and that's with a 'B' folks, to subsidize these people who couldn't even walk down the street without hitting a roadside bomb or getting mortared," James said in a recent speech. "That's something every American does effortlessly every day."
James has also vowed a congressional investigation into the 'gold-plated disability pensions' which the Department of Veterans Affairs pays out to wounded veterans.
"You take some 18-20 year old kid and you tell him 'Hey, lose both legs and we'll pay you a couple grand a month,'" James said. "They see that as money in the bank. I even heard they caught some kid with 10th Mountain Division who was trying to jump on an IED, and he said he could make double that if he was also paralyzed from the waist down."
The Pentagon has also begun examining a new theory that some people may enter the military with a pre-existing tendency to get hit on the battlefield, popularly known as 'having a bullet with your name on it.' Some experts have suggested screening for it at Military Entrance & Processing Stations by randomly opening fire on groups of new recruits, a process known as the 'Nidal Hasan Method.'