BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Christopher Barnett and Jonathan Reed died a month apart, their lives ended by separate explosions while on military patrols in Baghdad.
But the Louisiana National Guard soldiers died too soon for their families to receive $250,000 in special benefits given to the relatives of guardsmen killed while on active duty only a few years later.
The administration of Gov. Bobby Jindal and lawmakers hope to change the unequal system and pay the families of 32 soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2001 and 2007, when a law was passed creating the benefits program for Louisiana National Guard troops.
"It's not a matter of money. It's a matter of honor. My son's death shouldn't mean any less because he died before 2007. If guardsmen are going to be honored, then they should all be honored," said Judy Barnett, whose son Christopher was killed Dec. 23, 2004.
Members of the state Senate's veterans affairs committee pushed to fix the quirk in the law last year, saying they had left out soldiers' families they had intended to include. Budget problems derailed the $8 million proposal.
Committee members and soldiers' families hope Jindal's newly announced support for the measure will give it traction and push it to passage in the upcoming legislative session that begins in April.
"We're thrilled that you've come on board," Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, chairman of the veterans committee, told one of Jindal's budget advisers Thursday.
Jindal announced he'll include the money for the soldiers' families in his budget proposal, despite cuts in other areas of state spending. Last year, the governor's office didn't push the benefit expansion as one of its budget priorities.
"This demonstrates our unwavering commitment to supporting the brave men and women of our Louisiana National Guard that run towards danger to protect us and our freedoms," Jindal, who is running for re-election this fall, said in a statement.
Existing law provides $100,000 checks for permanently disabled guard members and $250,000 for relatives of guard members who die while on active duty. To qualify, the death or disability must have occurred between July 2007 and the present.
The measure now supported by Jindal would make the law retroactive to 2001, to compensate soldiers or families of soldiers who died or were injured between Sept. 11, 2001, and July 2007.
"This is a victory of sorts," said Ruth Reed, of Krotz Springs, whose 25-year-old stepson Jonathan was killed in January 2005 along with two fellow soldiers in an ambush.
Jonathan Reed, a staff sergeant from Opelousas, left behind a wife and son who was only eight months old when his father died. His wife will get the death benefit if lawmakers approve the legislation.
Christopher Barnett, 32, a first lieutenant from Denham Springs, had been married just three years when he was killed by a roadside bomb.
"We were told he died quickly. He didn't suffer," said Judy Barnett.
If the law change is passed, she'll share in the $250,000 payment with her son's wife because they were both listed on his life insurance forms with the military. But, she said, "I'd give any of that money to have him back."
Nine families have received the $250,000 death benefit check since the Louisiana legislation was enacted more than three years ago, according to the governor's office. One soldier has qualified for a $100,000 check for a permanent disability. Three other death benefits are pending.
The two benefits apply only to Louisiana National Guard members and their relatives, not to members of the U.S. Army or other military branches.