Cover: Compensation for Combat Deaths

Compensation for Combat Deaths

Policy Considerations

Published Mar 15, 2012

by Paul Heaton, James N. Dertouzos, James M. Anderson, John Mendeloff

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Research Questions

  1. What are the emerging policy questions related to compensation for U.S. military combat deaths?
  2. What are the opportunities for further research?

This briefing identifies policy questions related to compensating service members and their survivors for fatality risk. After comparing patterns in the characteristics of combat fatalities with those of fatalities occurring in other contexts, it discusses the Department of Defense's current compensation programs. Policymakers must consider a range of issues related to when, how, and how much service members and their families should be compensated for risk of combat death and its realization with reference to social, national security, and efficiency goals. In developing policy in this area, policymakers may benefit from both empirical studies and comparisons with compensation programs that exist in other contexts.

Key Findings

In Recent Years, the Number of U.S. Combat Casualties Has Exceeded the Number of Commercial Airline Fatalities and the Number of Line-of-Duty Police Deaths

  • Combat casualties tend to be younger and have fewer dependents than fatalities occurring in many other contexts, patterns that may have implications for the desired compensation structure.
  • Exposure to the hazards of combat is not shared equally across military occupations.

Existing Department of Defense (DoD) Programs Provide Combat Risk Compensation in a Variety of Forms

  • Some forms of compensation, such as bonuses or hazardous duty pay, are ex ante in nature (they compensate an individual before the risk is realized) and are provided to a wide range of service members.
  • Other programs, such as DoD's Death Gratuity, are provided ex post (compensation is provided only after the risk is realized) only to survivors of those who have been killed in combat.
  • DoD also provides a mix of both cash and in-kind compensation to families of those who have died in combat.

In Considering the Best Way to Structure Compensation, DoD Must Confront a Range of Policy Questions Related to When, How, and How Much Service Members and Their Families Should Be Compensated for Risk of Combat Death and Its Realization

  • Existing and potential future compensation systems can be assessed against a variety of goals, including social, national security, and efficiency criteria.
  • Examining how compensation is handled in additional initiatives and federal programs designed to provide compensation for premature death in other settings may provide useful lessons.


  • Additional research could be helpful in addressing questions about compensation for military fatalities. Empirical studies can provide policymakers better information about how individuals respond to combat fatality risk, how well the current system compensates economic loss, and how much variability exists in fatality compensation.
  • Given the wide range of alternative approaches for compensating death that exist in both the public and private spheres, comparative studies that draw lessons for the military from alternative systems also carry potential for informing future policy decisions in this area.

The research described in this report was prepared for the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD). The research was conducted within the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by OSD, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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