Lawmakers Back Military Death Benefit Halted by Shutdown

Death benefits for the survivors of U.S. military personnel would be renewed under legislation that House leaders plan to take up today after the payments were halted by the partial federal shutdown.

“It’s disgraceful that they’re withholding these benefits, but again tomorrow the House is going to act specifically on this, and I hope the president will sign it,” House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said yesterday at a news conference on Capitol Hill.

When most government funding ended Oct. 1 in a standoff between President Barack Obama and House Republicans, the Pentagon stopped paying the $100,000, tax-exempt “death gratuity” that’s intended to provide immediate cash to the survivors of U.S. military personnel.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have the legal authority to make those payments” until government funding resumes, Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale told reporters on Oct. 5. He said emergency legislation that provided for military personnel to continue receiving their pay lacked provisions authorizing the death benefit.

In addition to the $100,000 death payment, the military has halted benefits for survivors, including burial expenses and travel to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to receive the remains of loved ones, according to Navy Lieutenant Commander Nate Christensen, a Pentagon spokesman.

Flag-Draped Coffins

While Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel flew to Dover today for the arrival of flag-draped coffins bearing four of the five U.S. service members killed in Afghanistan over the weekend, families wishing to be there had to pay their own way or seek help from outside groups.

The lapse in death benefits is “heart-breaking for all of us,” said Ami Neiberger-Miller, a spokeswoman for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a nonprofit group based in Arlington, Virginia, that provides counseling to grieving families of fallen troops. The $100,000 death benefit typically serves as “bridge money,” that “you’re able to use to bring your family together,” she said in an interview.

The benefit also can be used to pay immediate expenses that are otherwise difficult to cover after the loss of a fallen soldier’s salary, Neiberger-Miller said.

“If your car payment is due in two weeks, this money is really important,” she said.

Son Killed

Shannon Collins, whose son, Marine Lance Corporal Jeremiah Collins, was killed in Afghanistan over the weekend, said that “the government is hurting the wrong people.”

“Families shouldn’t have to worry about how they’re going to bury their child,” she said in an interview with NBC News. “I don’t necessarily have $10,000 to bury my son.”

Representative Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said yesterday that Congress intended that the family allowances would continue uninterrupted during the shutdown.

“Judging by the Department of Defense’s own summary of those programs, we believed that ’death gratuities’ would continue to go to the families of those heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice,” the California Republican said in a statement. “If the Pentagon believes they need more explicit authority to disburse these payments, I am sure the House will provide it in very short order.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he was shocked that U.S. military personnel could die for their country while their families were handed an IOU.

“It’s an unbearable loss, but now they’re being denied death benefits because of this senseless shutdown,” Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said yesterday on the Senate floor. “It’s shameful and embarrassing.”

Christensen, the Pentagon spokesman, said the government continues to process claims under the Servicemembers Group Life Insurance program and to pay benefits such as a monthly stipend based on a deceased service member’s base duty pay.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.