Bill would expand military death benefits for families of ROTC cadets

by Vern Evans

Parents of young officers in training and incoming recruits who died in connection with military activities want Congress to approve death benefits that others in the armed forces already receive.

“It’s just been an absolute nightmare. There’s no aspect of our lives that are the same,” said Jessica Swan.

Swan’s daughter, Mackenzie Wilson, 19, a student at Oregon State University and an Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps cadet, died in a vehicle accident in June 2022, while at an Air Force base in Idaho for a development program.

Family members of active duty troops can collect financial compensation from the military after a service member dies. But Swan received nothing after her child’s death. Loved ones of those in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, as well as those in a pre-basic training program, are largely ineligible for such payments.

“There’s nothing, which was just astonishing,” said Swan. “How can you be doing the same thing as someone else, but they have a different title under a different program, and they have a safety net, but my daughter didn’t.”

Now, lawmakers are working across the aisle to remedy that.

A pair of provisions in the recently passed House version of the annual defense policy bill seek to expand eligibility of death benefits to ROTC members as well as life insurance access to the college-enrolled cadets and members of the military’s Delayed Entry Program, which allows time to complete school or meet other requirements before recruit training.

While House lawmakers included the provisions in their defense bill that passed in June, the current Senate version of the bill so far does not have them, and it remains to be seen whether the changes will make it into the final version of the bill signed by the president.

If eventually signed into law, the moves, which come amid a push to recruit more talent into the services, would close a gap in coverage that grieving parents say could offer much-needed relief from financial hardship and provide recognition of loss similar to what others in the military community receive.

“You’re already living every parent’s worst nightmare, and then you add the financial on top of it,” Swan said, noting how the lack of monetary assistance compounded her situation and snowballed into her losing her home.

The measures, included in the House’s fiscal year 2025 National Defense Authorization Act, would allow families of ROTC cadets who die at training on a DOD installation to be eligible for a special tax-free death gratuity payment of $100,000 as well as the aid of a casualty assistance officer, who can help with counseling, burial and next of kin services.

It also includes language to make third and fourth year ROTC cadets and members of the Delayed Entry Program eligible to enroll in Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance, SGLI, which can provide up to $500,000 in coverage.

Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Calif., who enrolled in the Delayed Entry Program a few months prior to officially joining the Marine Corps Reserve and attending boot camp, helped include those provisions in the House bill.

“In Congress, sometimes you are working on a policy change that will affect a lot of families in small or imperceptible ways,” he told Military Times in a statement. “Other times, you’re working on something that will only affect a few families, but in meaningful and noticeable ways. In this case, we are talking about changes that are much more the latter.”

Enrollees in the Delayed Entry Program are currently eligible to get very limited coverage through the SGLI for exercises that they are completing on a DOD facility, according to Carbajal.

But many in that program, like Jose Rodriguez, end up not being qualified. He died after participating in a fitness test with the Marine Corps’ Delayed Entry Program, and his family said they got no financial support.

“He was nothing for them,” his mother Rosario said.

As the armed forces actively work to attract talent following past difficulties in meeting recruitment targets, Manny Vega, the leader of the advocacy group who helped push the legislation forward in Congress, emphasized the coverage changes in question will offer peace of mind to families with loved ones in these programs, which serve as major gateways for the services to bring in new troops.

And if, or when, an incident results in a death, they would have help with navigating the path forward.

“That extra money would be a buffer,” said Vega, president of Save Our Servicemembers.

Vega admitted there’s been some pushback to the endeavor, including comments about how since those in question have not yet attended boot camp they should not qualify for the death benefits.

“Those who are opposed to this bill because these members have not attended boot camp are wrong,” he said, emphasizing that the young volunteers equally understand the sense of commitment that others in the military hold, and are already engaging in service-connected physical activities.

It’s unclear as to whether the legislation will be updated to make money retroactively available for families like Wilson’s or Rodriguez’s, but for now those leading the charge are aiming to get at least something on the table to keep others who experience such a tragedy from facing the same financial burdens.

“While thankfully, the number of families that will be impacted by this legislation is small, the stories of service members like Mackenzie Wilson and Jose Rodriguez are impactful on the families of individuals considering entering ROTC and DEP,” Rep. Mike Waltz, R-Fla., who also helped get the language included in the House bill, told Military Times in a statement.

“Ensuring that service members in those programs receive these benefits is critical to strengthening the family support systems that are the foundation of our modern, volunteer military,” added Waltz, who commissioned through the Virginia Military Institute’s ROTC program.

Jonathan is a staff writer and editor of the Early Bird Brief newsletter for Military Times. Follow him on Twitter @lehrfeld_media

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