Fewer people are buying life insurance in the nation at large, a trend that has been deepening over the last several decades.

That trend doesn't apply to those in military service -- the vast majority of service members have life insurance coverage under the Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance program, which provides a maximum $400,000 worth of coverage for $29 a month, regardless of rank, age or health. 

But when service members leave the military, "they end up unfortunately being a lot like the rest of America, which is drastically underinsured," said Shawn Loftus, chief actuary and senior vice president at USAA Life. A recent USAA survey of its members revealed that a third of them lacked any kind of life insurance.

"If the unthinkable happens, families can potentially lose their home, kids may not be able to go to college. Really, really drastic things can happen," Loftus said. "That's why we're passionate about this."

Unless service members choose to decline SGLI, it continues until they leave the military. They can convert that coverage to a permanent plan with a private insurer, or convert to the Veterans’ Group Life Insurance program, within a set time period. They can also supplement their insurance coverage while in the military, with policies offered by a variety of organizations and companies. When troops leave the military, it’s best to research their options and lock in a life insurance policy before the VGLI window ends – the optimal time is before leaving the military.

Of those who do buy insurance, more are doing so online, a trend that American Armed Forces Mutual Aid Association is seeing, said Mike Meese, a retired brigadier general who is chief operating officer and secretary of AAFMAA.

"This can be good, because they're doing comparison shopping," he said. Meese advises making sure the company you're dealing with has a strong reputation and ratings (through agencies such as A.M. Bestand Fitch Ratings); making sure the price as well as terms of coverage are consistent with what you need; and making sure the policy has no restrictions for eligibility like an aviation clause or war clause.

Check out our chart, which has examples of term policies offered by 12 companies/organizations, compared with the SGLI/VGLI rates:

In the U.S. at large, about 30 percent of households have no life insurance, compared with about 11 percent in the 1980s, said Bruce Engelhardt, a retired Navy rear admiral who is president of Navy Mutual, a nonprofit organization that sells  life insurance and provides financial education to the military community. The life insurance industry is selling 40 percent fewer policies than they were in the '80s, he said.

"I wish I could say it’s because they don’t need life insurance, but they probably do," Engelhardt said. "We don’t know all the whys, we just know that people aren’t buying insurance. ...

"The biggest challenge is to get people’s hearts back into it. This is about love. We care about what happens to the people we love in case something bad happens to us. People don’t like to think about that."

Much of the issue is tied to emotions surrounding the decision, experts said, but people also balk at perceived high costs that don't match reality.

"Our members find that once they get over that emotional hump, that’s the hard part. The hard part was emotionally getting over the idea, of facing the fact your life could end prematurely and your family would be in need because of it," Loftus said.

"When they finally get a quote and figure out they can get [coverage], they feel a great sense of emotional relief, accomplishment and satisfaction."

Karen Jowers covers military families, quality of life and consumer issues for the Military Times. She can be reached at kjowers@militarytimes.com.