Senate approves amendment for Arkansas National Guard widow


WASHINGTON — The Senate agreed Thursday to clarify the law so that the family of Capt. Samson Luke gets death benefits the Army denied on a technicality.

The Senate approved the amendment offered by U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., by unanimous consent along with several other amendments to the defense authorization bill that faced no opposition.

“I am elated that it is now in the bill,” said Miranda Luke, who has been battling the Army over the issue since her husband died in January 2010.

Pryor called Luke at her home in Greenwood shortly after the Senate agreed to accept the amendment to tell her the news.

“Our military families make a lot of sacrifices in choosing to serve our country. The Luke family is no different,” Pryor said in a statement. “They certainly don’t deserve to get pencil-whipped by the Army over death benefits.”

Pryor had spent hours on the floor over the last few days seeking support for his amendment. Some colleagues were reluctant to support any additional spending.

His basic appeal was that to deny a benefit over a dubious technicality would send a bad message to service men and women — particularly to those in the National Guard who sometimes feel they are not treated as well as active duty soldiers.

“We shouldn’t be cheating our service members just because we have maybe $100,000 at stake here,” Pryor said.

The measure makes it clear that Luke’s family, and others facing similar circumstances, would receive death benefits. The Senate included the language in the 2012 defense authorization bill, which they expect to pass before adjourning for the weekend.

Pryor is cautiously optimistic the House will also accept the Luke amendment in the final version of the bill that would go to the president for his signature.

Meanwhile, Pryor said that Army Secretary John McHugh is also taking a second look at the Luke case following calls that he received from Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and John McCain, R-Ariz., the top leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Luke’s widow has filed an appeal with the Army Review Board for Correction of Military Records to overrule the decision to deny her survivor benefits. That appeal has been strongly supported at the highest level of the National Guard.

Gen. Craig R. McKinley, chief of the National Guard Bureau, sent a letter to the Board on Aug. 30, urging it to “do the right thing by this family.” An attorney representing the Luke family in the appeal said that he was not aware if the Board had reached a decision yet. An Army spokesman could not say Thursday where the appeal stood.

Luke, who received a Bronze Star for exemplary service in Iraq, joined the Arkansas National Guard after retiring from active duty in 2007. He died midway through a training exercise at Fort Chaffee during one of the coldest weekends in 2010. The temperature was in the single digits that morning with winds averaging 12 miles per hour in Fort Smith.

After spending most of Saturday at Fort Chaffee, Luke was given permission to go home to Greenwood for the evening, about a 12-mile drive away, to his wife and four young children. He was expected to return Sunday for the remainder of the training but died that evening.

The Army initially informed his widow that she would receive a $100,000 death gratuity and up to $8,000 in funeral costs. But soon after Luke was buried, the Army’s casualty and mortuary affairs branch denied the benefits, saying that his death did not occur “in the vicinity” of the inactive-duty training facility as the law required.

Pryor said that he had tried to resolve the dispute with the Army but they were “at a standstill” over the meaning of “in the vicinity” as it pertains to the law.

In his letter of support, McKinley told the Army Board that immediately after Luke died an Army representative informed Miranda Luke that she would receive the death gratuity and other benefits. Once informed, she turned down the burial offered by the Department of Veterans Affairs and paid for the funeral out of pocket. She was also informed that her immediate family would be reimbursed the cost of travel to the funeral.

“Having met with the family, I’m convinced Mrs. Luke would not have incurred many of the expenses she incurred but for the Department’s guarantees. Accordingly, I would respectfully ask that the Department do the right thing by this family and ensure that they receive the $100,000 Death Gratuity,” McKinley wrote.

Earlier in August, the adjutant general of the Arkansas National Guard wrote McKinley asking him to support Luke’s appeal.

Maj. Gen. William Wofford said in the memorandum that Luke “presents a most compelling case that warrants justice and merits compassion.”

Wofford noted that CMAOC issued its final decision before an autopsy and a National Guard report were available. The National Guard investigation found that Luke died in the line of duty.

“I thoroughly endorse and approve the LOD findings that Captain Luke’s strenuous service under freezing temperatures brought upon his untimely death,” Wofford wrote.