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.
“This vital benefit provides family members with an immediate cash payment to help meet their financial needs during the period immediately following the service member’s death. Often, these benefits are used to cover memorial service and burial costs, travel expenses and the unforeseen lapse in a family member’s regular paycheck, which terminates at death. It goes without saying the death gratuity is a small price to pay in order to support family members of those who have paid the ultimate price in service to their country,” the senators continued.
“We strongly urge you to use whatever legal discretion you have to ensure that the nation can fulfill that sacred obligation, and to promptly notify us of changes required under law while the Congress continues to work towards reopening the government. Most immediately, we request that you seek an interim solution to allow the families of the five service members killed in Afghanistan this weekend to welcome their loved ones home.”
That could come in the form of accepting the help of a nonprofit if the administration refuses to help. The Fisher House Foundation, which operates programs to keep military families near their hospitalized loved ones with quarters built near military and VA centers and with donated frequent flier miles, offered to advance the payments to the service members’ families until the government can make reimbursements.
“After losing a loved one in service to our nation, these families should not have to endure more pain as the result of political squabbling,” said Ken Fisher, Chairman & CEO of Fisher House Foundation. “For the last 20 years, Fisher House has been there to support our military families in their time of greatest need. We are now stepping up to honor the sacrifices that have been made, and to repay a debt that is truly unpayable.”
Manchin spoke with Fisher today as the two worked out the stopgap arrangement.
“I am so grateful that the Fisher House Foundation volunteered to help military families to make sure there is no funding gap during a time of unimaginable grief,” the West Virginia Democrat said. “…During these times of dysfunction and gridlock rampant in Washington, it shows the strength of family organizations and the American people that they are are willing to step up and continue to move this great country forward.”
Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.), whose district includes Fort Bragg, confirmed on the House floor this morning lawmakers’ belief that their emergency funding to the DoD covered the death gratuities.
“There is a great injustice being done to our service members and their families. We learned last night that five brave American service members were killed over the weekend in Afghanistan while selflessly protecting our country. Normally the loved ones of these fallen warriors receive assistance in the form of benefits to help them as they make final arrangements for burial and other necessary preparations,” Ellmers said.
“Yet as a direct result of the political gridlock here in Washington – and despite legislation passed in the House last week – service members and their families are no longer receiving their benefits. Despite the government shut down, our service members are still expected to go to war and we should be expected to keep our promise to these grieving families,” she continued. “I am working as we speak to right this wrong and I urge all of my colleagues to do the same.”
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), noting her state has one of the largest population of soldiers that have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, also said the bill passed by Congress should have covered these payments.
“Today I called upon the Secretary of Defense to review H.R. 3210, the ‘Pay Our Military Act,’ which the President signed into law as Pub. L. 113-039 on September 30, 2013, and direct that death benefits be paid to the families immediately so that they can travel to Dover Air Force Base and defray the cost of funeral expenses for the service men and women who lost their lives over the weekend in Afghanistan,” Jackson Lee said in a statement.
On a weekend briefing with reporters detailing the DoD’s “interpretation” of the Pay Our Military Act, Undersecretary of Defense Robert Hale said “we have some heart-rending situations — that we are not allowed, by law, to pay death gratuities.”
“They are not a paid allowance, and unfortunately, that — we will still be unable to pay them, due to POMA, or even after POMA,” Hale continued. “We’ve had a number of people die recently and we will be able to pay them, but not until the lapse of appropriation ends. We’re trying to be helpful through aid societies and others to the family members who are involved in these tragic circumstances. But unfortunately, we don’t have the legal authority to make those payments.”
Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), chairman of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel, on Friday sent a letter to Hagel asking for an update on pays and allowances no later than this Thursday.
On the death gratuity, Wilson noted in the letter, “we cannot in good conscience deny these benefits to the survivors of deceased members.”
“It is outrageous that the president has temporarily halted death benefits for fallen Americans who have given the ultimate sacrifice,” McKeon said. “…I urge the president to use the authorities he has been granted to do right by our troops and our cadets. Certain things should transcend politics. The responsibilities of commander in chief sit atop that list.”