LIVE VIDEO: WTLV Live Video_1    Watch
 
LIVE VIDEO: Good Morning Jacksonville    Watch
 

Outrage erupts as shutdown halts death benefits to fallen soldiers' kin

2:02 PM, Oct 8, 2013   |    comments
  • Share
  • Print
  • - A A A +

In what veterans call an outrageous slight after the ultimate sacrifice, the shuttered federal government is withholding a $100,000 payment normally wired to relatives of fallen soldiers - including the families of five killed in Afghanistan over the weekend.

The payment, known as the death gratuity, is typically sent to families of the fallen within three days to help them cover funeral costs or travel to meet the flag-draped coffins of their loved ones.

"It is upsetting because my husband died for his country, and now his family is left to worry," said Ashley Peters of Springfield, Mo., whose husband, Jeremy, was a special agent assigned to the Army's 5th Military Police Battalion and was among the five killed. "My husband always said if something happened to him we would be taken care of."

"I'm a stay-at-home mom, which is what my husband wanted," she said. "He wanted me to take care of our son."

Outrage over the lapse built Tuesday in both parties in Congress, among the relatives of the fallen and among veteran advocacy groups, which characterized it as an unacceptable breach of the country's obligation to its volunteer military and their families.

"Impacting grieving families when they are at their absolute weakest point is just disgusting," said Joe Davis, a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the largest organization of combat veterans in the United States.

"Veterans, military personnel and now their families are not to be used as leverage in this political game of blame," he said. He called on leaders in Congress to "put the country ahead of their politics."

Congress passed a law last week to pay the military during the shutdown. Pentagon officials studied it to assess whether it might cover the death gratuity and determined that it was not possible, a defense official told NBC News on Tuesday.

Republican aides in Congress said that they were drafting legislation to restore the death gratuity, and that it could be put to a vote as early as Wednesday. The aides also said that they believed that last week's law had covered the payment.

"I would say it's wrong, and it's going to be fixed," said Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., whose district includes a heavy military constituency. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from the same state, said to the families: "Your government has let you down in a time of need. There's no excuse for this."

But for now, the $100,000 payment, meant to tide families over until military survivor benefits kick in, is being withheld for relatives of the killed over the weekend in Afghanistan, four from the Army and one from the Marines.

"Unfortunately, as a result of the shutdown, we do not have the legal authority to make death gratuity payments at this time," said Nate Christensen, a spokesman for the Defense Department. "However, we are keeping a close eye on those survivors who have lost loved ones serving in the Department of Defense."

A defense official added that if the department were allowed to pay the death gratuity during the shutdown, it would be paid "with great relief."

The Marine was Lance Cpl. Jeremiah Collins Jr., 19, of Milwaukee, who the Pentagon said died Saturday while supporting combat operations in Helmand province. The Pentagon said that the death was under investigation.

Peters and three soldiers were killed Sunday by an improvised bomb in Zhari district: 1st Lt. Jennifer Moreno, 25, of San Diego; Sgt. Patrick Hawkins, 25, of Carlisle, Pa.; and Pfc. Cody Patterson, 24, of Philomath, Ore.

"If Congress were trapped in a car that sunk down in a river, I would swim to the window, and I would look them all in the eye and say, 'Suck water,'" said Randall Patterson, the father of Private Patterson. The father used an expletive to characterize members of Congress who "are still getting paid."

Patterson said that the military did pay for the flight he is taking Tuesday to Dover Air Force Base, Del., to retrieve his son's body, and for his hotel once he arrives.

The mother and brother of Peters, the special agent from the 5th Military Police Battalion, said that they were too upset to talk. His step-grandfather, Peters Jerry, said that the sergeant was getting out of the military after this tour, so that he could be home more with his 20-month-old son.

"It will be devastating," Jerry said of the delay in the death gratuity. He said that he blamed Republicans and the Tea Party.

Seventeen service members have died since the government shut down Oct. 1, a senior defense official said, including six in Afghanistan. None of the families of the 17 received the death gratuity.

It is not the only benefit that is normally paid to families of fallen soldiers and has been stopped by the shutdown.

Also suspended is a year's worth of housing allowance, typically paid in a lump sum to the surviving spouse or dependent children of a soldier. For a sergeant in the Washington area with dependents, it amounts to more than $2,000 per month.

And survivors are not receiving a reimbursement specifically aimed at burial and related expenses. That benefit is $9,000 for burial in a private cemetery and $6,000 for burial in a national cemetery.

"We think it's outrageous," said Tom Berger, executive director of the Veterans Health Council at Vietnam Veterans of America, speaking specifically of the death gratuity.

"That period of time, that bereavement period right after you learn of the family member's death, is so critical," he said. "It can put a lot of stress on a family. That $100,000 goes a long way to taking care of that stress."

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, pointed out that the country had never faced a war and a government shutdown at the same time. She also took note of the 12th anniversary, on Monday, of the war in Afghanistan - "a battle that barely brushes against most Americans' lives."

"When people realize that they can serve and fight for their country, but that their families will get an IOU until the shutdown is over, I think they're just shocked," she wrote in a post on the military news site Defense One.

Families of the fallen often use the death gratuity to cover funeral and travel expenses, she said, because military paychecks stop immediately upon the death of a soldier, and life insurance payments can take a week or more to arrive.

"The casualties of war do not stop just because Washington does," she wrote.

The shutdown stretched into its second week Tuesday. Republicans again insisted on a one-year delay in the federal health care law known as Obamacare in talks on how to make a deal on the budget and restore the government to full operation.

NBC News

Most Watched Videos