Pentagon strikes deal with charity to pay military death benefits
WASHINGTON (CNN) — The Pentagon is entering into an agreement with a private foundation to ensure families of fallen troops are paid survivor benefits that were suspended because of the government shutdown, the U.S. Secretary of Defense said Wednesday.
The government will reimburse the Fisher House Foundation once the shutdown is over, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a written statement.
“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 the days before the shutdown, we warned Congress and the American people that DoD would not have the legal authority to make these payments during a lapse in appropriations.”
The announcement came just after the U.S. House of Representatives voted unanimously to resume paying survivor benefits, which includes a $100,000 payment.
It was unclear whether the U.S. Senate would take up the bill given that a legislative fix may now not be necessary.
President Barack Obama ordered administration officials on Wednesday to find an immediate solution.
“The president was very disturbed to learn of this problem, and he directed the Department of Defense to work with the Office of Management and Budget and his lawyers to develop a possible solution, and he expects this to be fixed today,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
Funeral and burial reimbursements are also included. So is a gratuity for travel to funeral or memorial services — or to be at Dover Air Force Base, where remains of the fallen typically go.
Carney said the payments were not specifically addressed in legislation to ensure military personnel would be paid during any shutdown. He did not elaborate on what the solution might be.
It’s unclear exactly when Obama learned of the situation, which reporters were briefed about four days before the shutdown began. At the briefing Wednesday, Carney refused to say when the president learned benefits were being delayed.
“I don’t know specifically,” he said.
On September 27, Pentagon comptroller Bob Hale told reporters at a Pentagon briefing that death gratuities would be one of the things held up by a shutdown.
“This is ghoulish, but it’s the law, not policy,” he said. “Remember that. If the death occurred after the lapse took place, then the money would be obligated after the lapse took place, and we would have no authority to pay based on that money until the lapse ended. So in that case, they could be delayed.”
It’s the “worst nightmare” for military families, said Amy Neiberger-Miller of TAPS, a support network for families of the fallen.
Lance Cpl. Jeremiah Collins, 19, died in Afghanistan’s Helmand province.
Now, his mother doesn’t know how she’ll cover his burial.
“Am I going to be on a payment plan for the rest of my life so that my son can have the services he deserves?” Collins said, in a report from CNN affiliate WTMJ.
His plight is part of the latest fallout from the shutdown, now in its ninth day.
“Lord, when our federal shutdown delays payments of death benefits to the families of children dying on far away battlefields, it is time for our lawmakers to say enough is enough,” the Rev. Barry Black, the Senate chaplain, said in his morning prayer for lawmakers.
“The president is the commander in chief. He should not be using troops and their families as pawns in this political bickering,” Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pennsylvania, said on the House floor. “He should be doing everything he can to stand up for the men and women of our military. Instead, he is refusing to negotiate until he gets his way.”
The holdup on death benefit payments is just one issue affecting military families because of the shutdown.
Childcare programs have been scratched, subsidized military grocery stores are closed, nonessential medical care has been cut back, and kids’ sports programs have been canceled, CNNMoney reports.
Other private groups are offering military families assistance as well.
“That America could fail the families of our fallen heroes — appalling, frightening,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, said on the Senate floor.
“Shouldn’t we be embarrassed about this? Shouldn’t we be ashamed?” said Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona.
Fisher House Foundation, a group that helps the families of troops in need, offered an advance grant to such families during the shutdown, according to a letter from Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, to Hagel.
Meanwhile, the members-only gym at the House remains open.
“The electricity, the hot water, the towels — they are not provided by gym fairies,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon, said Wednesday, calling, on the House floor, for the gym to be closed. “They are provided by taxpayers.”
“Some of the most fanatic about inflicting unnecessary pain on the American public are regulars, enjoying our House gym while the staff gym is closed,” he said.
By Josh Levs, Barbara Starr and Jamie Crawford
CNN’s Craig Broffman and Larry Shaughnessy contributed to this report.