The Oklahoma Senate on Monday unanimously passed a bill to reimburse the families of fallen Oklahoma National Guard members who die on state active-duty orders for their funeral expenses.
HB2374 would establish a program to reimburse families for funeral expenses up to $10,000. If enacted, the bill will take effect on Nov. 1, 2021. Reimbursements would be determined by the Department of Emergency Management; the bill orders the creation of an "Oklahoma Homeland Security Revolving Fund," from which the funeral expenses would be paid.
The median cost of an adult funeral with a viewing and burial is about $6,933 in Oklahoma and nearby states, but the national median cost is $9,135, according to 2019 data from the National Funeral Directors Association.
"This was not a bill that was requested by us, but we're very supportive of the effort,"
Brig. Gen. Tommy Mancino, an assistant adjutant general of the Oklahoma Army National Guard who has served for 36 years, told Military.com. "I think it's an appropriate thing to do for our soldiers and airmen in the National Guard in Oklahoma, when they choose to serve in the National Guard and are called to state active duty, as opposed to federal active duty, that they get the same kind of benefits for their families, should they provide the ultimate sacrifice."
Currently, the families of Oklahoma National Guardsmen who are killed overseas while on federal active-duty orders are reimbursed for their funeral expenses, but the families of those who die while serving on state active-duty orders are not. Mancino emphasized that "in all 54 states and territories it's handled differently."
"When it's the state active-duty mission, they work for the governor of the state, and therefore the laws within the state govern their rights and benefits," he said. "Soldiers that are injured on state active duty are not covered by federal health care protections like a normal, active-duty soldier or airman would [be]. And they're also not covered by the same ... [Department of Veterans Affairs] benefits that would accrue to a service member killed in the line of duty."
At least 20 Oklahoma National Guard members have died while serving overseas since 9/11, according to a 2020 news release.
Mancino said that "to the best of his knowledge" no Oklahoma Guard member has died on state active-duty orders, but some have been injured.
"We have had soldiers that are injured on state active duty, so they do participate in dangerous activities," he said.
Republican Oklahoma State Sen. David Bullard, who authored the bill in the state Senate, told Military.com that he is confident that Stitt will support the bill.
"Our governor is very, very on target with our service men and women, who serve both Highway Patrol, law enforcement and the National Guard," Bullard said. "I don't see the reason why the governor would veto it. He'll be on board with this."
Bullard said that supporting the bill was "an easy yes." Though Guard deaths on state active-duty orders are uncommon, he emphasized the importance of covering families financially.
"The fiscal impact was considered to be very low, because it's a very rare occurrence. But even in those rare occurrences, we just wanted to make sure that the families are covered," he said.
Republican Oklahoma State Rep. Dean Davis, who authored the bill in the state House, expressed support for the bill in an April 20 news release.
"I'm proud to have authored this important bill to honor the lives and sacrifice of our brave National Guard men and women who paid the ultimate price in service to their country and state," Davis said. "Having lost a loved one, these families shouldn't have to worry about funeral expenses. Just as their loved one was there for the state of Oklahoma, we will be there for them at their time of need providing this financial assistance as they are laid to their final resting place."