Military Death Benefits to Resume Under House-Passed Bill

The U.S. House passed a measure unanimously today that would restore death benefits for the survivors of U.S. military personnel after payments were halted by the partial federal shutdown.

The 425-0 vote sends the legislation to the Senate. As lawmakers moved to resolve the issue, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said a foundation has agreed to make the payments until the shutdown ends.

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.

“Our men and women serving in uniform in dangerous places all over the globe deserve the peace of mind of knowing that, during the worst of times, their families will receive the benefits they deserve immediately,” Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen, a New Jersey Republican and author of the legislation, said today on the House floor. “This bill removes any ambiguity on this point.”

While the measure received bipartisan support, some lawmakers blamed either the Democratic administration or the House Republicans for the lapse in benefits.

Republicans said the Pentagon interpreted too narrowly a previously passed bill authorizing continued pay for military personnel by saying it doesn’t include death benefits. Democrats said allowing the partial government shutdown led to the disruption.

Authority Questioned

“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 the September legislation that provided for military personnel to continue receiving their pay lacked provisions authorizing the death benefit.

Minutes after the House vote, Hagel said that the Fisher House Foundation, a Rockville, Maryland-based nonprofit that supports military families, has agreed to pay the benefits and will be reimbursed by the Pentagon after the shutdown ends.

“I am offended, outraged and embarrassed that the government shutdown had prevented the Department of Defense from fulfilling this most sacred responsibility in a timely manner,” Hagel said in a statement, saying the Pentagon had warned Congress of the issue before the partial shutdown.

‘Fixed Today’

White House spokesman Jay Carney today told reporters that Obama was “disturbed” to learn that death benefits weren’t being paid because of the shutdown.

“The president expects this to be fixed today,” Carney said before Hagel’s announcement.

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.

So while 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.

‘Heart-Breaking’ Lapse

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.

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.”

‘Ultimate Sacrifice’

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.

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.

The legislation is H.J.Res. 91.

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