The New York Times
daily broadsheet, New York City USA
Tuesday 8 October 2013
Death, Burial Benefits
of 4 Dead Soldiers
by Jennifer Steinhauer
WASHINGTON -- The families of four soldiers killed in Afghanistan last weekend will not receive death benefits or the money to pay for their funerals because of the government shutdown.
The bodies of Sgt. Patrick C. Hawkins, 25; Pfc. Cody J. Patterson, 24; Sgt. Joseph M. Peters, 24; and First Lt. Jennifer M. Moreno, 25, will arrive at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware on Wednesday. The four soldiers were killed Sunday in the Zhari district of Kandahar Province when enemy forces attacked their unit with explosives.
But if their families want to meet the plane, they will have to pay their own way to Delaware.
Under the shutdown, Carl Woog, a Defense Department spokesman, said on Tuesday, "the Department of Defense does not currently have the authority to pay death gratuities and other key benefits for the survivors of service members killed in action."
The benefits include $100,000 to each family; a 12-month basic allowance for housing, usually given in a lump sum to survivors commensurate with the rank of the service member; and burial benefits. The benefits are also being withheld from the family of Lance Cpl. Jeremiah Collins Jr., 19, of the Marines, whose death on Saturday in Helmand Province is being investigated by the Pentagon.
New hardships caused by the shutdown seem to emerge every day as the standoff between President Obama and Congressional Republicans entered its second week. But the denial of benefits to the families of fallen soldiers -- however temporary -- led to an unusual burst of outrage.
Senators took the floor to express their anger. In the House, members scrambled to write a bill to remedy the problem.
"It’s an unbearable loss," Senator Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, the majority leader, said on the Senate floor of the soldiers’ families. "But now they’re being denied death benefits because of this senseless shutdown. It’s shameful and embarrassing.
"There are no words to describe this situation," he said.
Pentagon military and civilian personnel have largely escaped furloughs through legislation signed by President Obama and on orders from the defense secretary. But the death benefits are not covered by either move.
Last week, Congress quickly passed the Pay Our Military Act to ensure that active-duty soldiers and civilian support staff members were paid for their work. Over the weekend, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the Pentagon concluded that most of its 400,000 civilian employees were covered by the bill.
Some House Republicans have suggested, without citing specific language in the bill, that it also covered death benefits.
"The intent of Congress was to permit D.O.D. to honor all payment and allowances to service members," Representative Duncan Hunter, Republican of California, said in a letter to Mr. Hagel.
"The department’s decision to not make these payments is a matter of choice," he added.
"And until a correction is made to the law, it is up to you to make the appropriate judgment based on a more correct interpretation."
The House Appropriations Committee is moving to get a bill to the floor to reinstate the benefits as early as Wednesday.
“Frankly, I think it’s disgraceful that they’re withholding these benefits,” Speaker John A. Boehner said in a brief news conference Tuesday afternoon. “But again tomorrow, the House is going to act specifically on this and I hope the president will sign it.”
The Pentagon strongly denied that the current legislation allowed for benefits to be paid without further Congressional action.
“The fact that the House is developing new legislation on this matter shows Congress fully understands that D.O.D. does not have the legal authority to provide these death benefits,” a senior military official said. “Secretary Hagel is outraged and disgusted by this situation, but the law is clear.”
Such legislation is likely to have strong support in both the House and Senate. “We ought to sit down and work it out,” said Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona.
After Mr. Reid spoke, Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, and one of the architects of the shutdown, came to the Senate floor to say, “All of us weep for those servicemen and women who have lost their lives in defense of our great nation, and I would note that this Senate can right now today move to correct the problem.”
Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, announced Tuesday that he had worked with Ken Fisher, the chief executive of Fisher House Foundation, a service group for veterans, to give families an advance grant to cover flights, hotels and other incidental costs for family members to attend funerals until the government can make reimbursements.
"After losing a loved one in service to our nation, these families should not have to endure more pain as the result of political squabbling," Mr. Fisher said in a statement.
Jonathan Weisman contributed reporting.
A version of this article appears in print on October 9, 2013, on page A20 of the New York edition with the headline: Shutdown Denies Death and Burial Benefits to Families of 4 Dead Soldiers.- 30 -