WASHINGTON — Lawmakers say that they gave the Pentagon authority to pay death gratuities to survivors of service members killed in action in an emergency appropriations measure — and were shocked when the Defense Department suspended the payments.

Even as anger was directed at Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s “interpretation” of the bill from both sides of the aisle, a donor stepped in with an offer to cover the immediate payments to family members until the Defense Department decides to reimburse.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) noted that Congress last week passed the Pay Our Military Act “with the express intent that all military pay and allowances would be dispersed during a government shutdown.”

That passed both chambers unanimously before being signed by President Obama on the eve of the shutdown. The bill provides for “such sums as are necessary to provide pay and allowances to members of the Armed Forces” on active duty, essential civilian personnel and essential contractors.

“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. Without question, that was our clear intent,” McKeon said.

“However, we can never let the welfare of our troops and their families become pawns in a political contest. 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.”

Hagel confirmed yesterday that grieving families of war dead are not receiving the traditional payout from the Pentagon during the shutdown.

In a readout from yesterday’s meeting with the service secretaries and service chiefs the Defense Department noted “that despite the recall of most civilians, and the resumption of many activities across the Department of Defense, there are critical programs and benefits that remain halted.”

“For example, the department does not currently have the authority to pay death gratuities for the survivors of service members killed in action – typically a cash payment of $100,000 paid within three days of the death of a service member,” it continued.

Since the shutdown began, the Pentagon has identified five casualties in Operation Enduring Freedom.

Lance Cpl. Jeremiah M. Collins, Jr., 19, of Milwaukee died Saturday while supporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan. He was assigned to Combat Logistics Regiment 2, 2nd Marine Logistics Group, II Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Lejeune, N.C. The circumstances around his death are under investigation.
On Sunday, four Army soldiers were killed in Zhari District, Afghanistan, when enemy forces attacked their unit with an improvised explosive device.

They were 1st Lt. Jennifer M. Moreno, 25, of San Diego, Calif., assigned to Madigan Army Medical Center, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.; Sgt. Patrick C. Hawkins, 25, of Carlisle, Pa., assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, Fort Benning, Ga.; Sgt. Joseph M. Peters, 24, of Springfield, Mo., assigned to the 5th Military Police Battalion, Vicenza, Italy; and Pfc. Cody J. Patterson, 24, of Philomath, Ore., assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, at Fort Benning, Ga

Hawkins’ family resides in Lansing, Kansas, according to Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.).

“Sergeant Hawkins bravely answered the call to serve our country, and we will forever be indebted to him for his service and sacrifice on our behalf,” Moran said.

Separately, the senator joined a bipartisan group in the upper chamber today calling for Hagel to immediately begin issuing death gratuity payments.

Moran was joined by Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), John Boozman (R-Ark.), and Tom Carper (D-Del.).

“We write to express our concern with recent statements made by Department of Defense officials claiming the Department does not have the legal authority during the government shutdown to provide immediate death gratuity payments to surviving family members who lose a loved one in combat,” the letter to the Defense secretary states.