WASHINGTON (AP) - The Obama administration says it has worked out a solution to allow the families of fallen military members to receive death benefits during the government shutdown.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says the Fisher House Foundation has agreed to make the payments from its own funds. At the end of the shutdown, the Defense Department will reimburse the foundation for the costs it has incurred.
The White House said earlier Wednesday that President Barack Obama was "disturbed" to learn that families of fallen soldiers were not receiving death benefits. The Defense Department typically pays families about $100,000 within three days of a soldier's death, but officials say the shutdown was preventing those benefits from being paid.
The Fisher House Foundation is a charity organization that works with veterans and military families.
NBCNEWS.COM - President Barack Obama expects a benefit for families of fallen soldiers to be restored Wednesday, his top spokesman said — minutes after grieving relatives, denied the help because of the government shutdown, watched the flag-draped caskets of their loved ones returned to American soil. The president "expects this to be fixed today," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters.
Congress, scrambling and embarrassed, pledged that the lapse would be fixed in short order. A senior White House official said that the Defense Department had warned Congress, before it passed a bill to pay the military during the shutdown, that the benefit would be cut off unless it was explicitly addressed.
The benefit is a $100,000 payment meant to help military families plan funerals and travel to meet the bodies of their lost relatives. Since its suspension, as detailed in a series of NBC News stories, their immense grief has been compounded by outrage and frustration. Moments before Carney spoke, the families gathered at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to tend to their grim retrievals.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel attended the ceremony, watching, as the families did, as a white-gloved honor guard carried four flag-covered cases out of the belly of a military jet and into a mortuary truck. While Washington bickered, the families tended to their grim retrievals. Matt Peters, the brother of Army special agent Joseph Peters, said that in the minutes before he and his mother received the casket, nothing mattered but the loss itself. "We don't care about shutdowns or payouts or any of that right now," he told NBC News.
"We're just trying to grieve."Peters, assigned to the Army military police, was among four killed over the weekend in Afghanistan whose bodies were being returned to Dover on Wednesday and whose families were denied the benefit, a $100,000 payment known as the death gratuity. "It is upsetting because my husband died for his country, and now his family is left to worry," Special Agent Peters' wife, Ashley, said before boarding a plane to Dover to meet the body of her husband. The shutdown entered its ninth day no end in sight.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars, the largest veterans organization in the country, repeated its disgust on Wednesday and said it was "absolutely appalling and nothing short of a travesty that elected officials continue to receive paychecks and benefits while not providing for those who deserve it." Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pledged that the benefits "are going to be restored, without any question."
The House planned to pass legislation later in the day, invoking a fast-track procedure that requires a two-thirds majority. The bill was expected to pass unanimously.The chaplain of the Senate, Barry Black, directly invoked the denial of the benefit in his daily opening prayer before the chamber. "Lord, when our federal shutdown delays payments of death benefits to the families of children dying on far-away battlefields, it's time for our lawmakers to say enough is enough," he said. "Cover our shame with the robe of your righteousness." Some members of Congress were surprised that it was not covered by a law passed just before the shutdown that authorized "pay and allowances" for the military.
In any event, the Senate was expected to pass the fix, and Obama to sign it, quickly. On Tuesday, The Senate sat in almost total silence, summoned to their seats in another rare legislative maneuver, while two of its most respected members denounced the suspension of the benefit. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a veteran himself, told his colleagues that they should be ashamed."Shouldn't we as a body, Republican or Democrat — shouldn't we be embarrassed? Ashamed?" he asked. "What do American people think when they see that death benefit for those who served and sacrifice — they're not eligible?" While Congress scrambled, a Maryland foundation stepped in to help.
The Fisher House Foundation of Bethesda, Md., offered the families of fallen soldiers advance grants until the government can make reimbursements to the foundation. The father of one of the fallen soldiers, Pfc. Cody Patterson, 24, of Philomath, Ore., noted that members of Congress "are still getting paid" a week after the government shut down. "If Congress were trapped in a car that sunk down in a river, I would swim to the window, and I would look them all in the eye and say, ‘Suck water,'" Randall Patterson told NBC News on Tuesday as he prepared to fly to Delaware.
Lucy Leach, the grandmother of Cody Patterson, also began to look beyond the politics as Cody's father prepared to receive the body in Dover. "I have faith in our government," she said. "They're going to fix this."Peters; Patterson; 1st Lt. Jennifer Moreno, 25, of San Diego; Sgt. Patrick Hawkins, 25, of Carlisle, Pa.; were killed Sunday by an improvised bomb in Zhari district, according to the Pentagon. Twenty-six service members have died since the government shut down Oct. 1, including five in combat.
None of the families of the 26 has received the death gratuity. Also suspended is a year's worth of housing allowance, typically paid in a lump sum to the surviving spouse or dependent children of a soldier.
For a sergeant in the Washington area with dependents, it could amount to more than $2,000 a month. And survivors are not receiving a reimbursement specifically aimed at burial and related expenses. That benefit is $9,000 for burial in a private cemetery and $6,000 for burial in a national cemetery. "The government is hurting the wrong people," said Shannon Collins, whose Marine son, Lance Cpl. Jeremiah Collins, died Saturday while supporting combat operations in Helmand province.
"Families shouldn't have to worry about how they're going to bury their child," she said. "Families shouldn't have to worry about how they're going to feed their family if they don't go to work this week." Veterans groups and members of Congress from both parties have expressed disgust over the delay in the payments.
Congressional aides said they believed that last week's law had covered the payment. "We gave broad authority to the Department of Defense to pay all kinds of bills, including this," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Tuesday afternoon."
And frankly, I think it's disgraceful that they're withholding these benefits," he said. "But again, tomorrow, the House is going to act specifically on this, and I hope the president will sign it."
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