published Wednesday, October 9th, 2013

Government shutdown denies death benefits to families of 4 dead soldiers

NYT News Service via AP

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 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 Barack 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,” Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., 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 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 DOD to honor all payment and allowances to service members,” Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., said in a letter to Hagel.

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