Congress moves to reinstate military’s death gratuity amid shutdown
By LEO SHANE III | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 9, 2013
WASHINGTON — Lawmakers scrambled this week to find a budgetary fix to resume death gratuity payments to families of troops killed overseas, the latest surprise side-effect of the week-old government shutdown.
Over the weekend, Defense Department officials acknowledged that the shutdown had halted the $100,000 payouts given to fallen troops’ families, usually paid within a few days of their deaths.
At least five U.S. servicemembers have died in Afghanistan since the start of the month.
“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,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said in a statement.
Pentagon officials said the shutdown restrictions have also halted reimbursements for families traveling to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to witness the return of fallen troops, paying for memorial services and burial expenses, and traveling to visit wounded troops.
The news prompted outrage among veterans advocates. Officials from the American Legion voiced their support for any legislation that would restore the payouts. Leaders from the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors said the stoppage could cause unnecessary hardship for already grieving families.
Officials from the Fisher House foundation announced they will cover the costs of flights, hotels and other incidentals for grieving family members until the payouts are restored. Army Emergency Relief and the Navy Marine Corps Relief Society have also made similar public offers.
One of the five servicemembers killed was Lance Cpl. Jeremiah Collins Jr. of Milwaukee, whose body arrived at Dover on Monday.
Collins’ family says the 19-year-old intelligence specialist died Saturday at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province.
The Marine’s mother, Shannon Collins, told NBC News that the shutdown is “hurting the wrong people.”
“I don’t necessarily have $10,000 to bury my son,” she told NBC News. “Families shouldn’t have to worry about how they’re going to bury their child.”
Republican leaders in the House said Tuesday they are working on a legislative solution to the problem, one that would extend military leaders’ authority to quickly distribute the gratuities again. A vote on the issue was expected as early as Wednesday afternoon.
But whether such a measure could become law remains unclear.
Last week, just hours after the shutdown began, Congress approved legislation ensuring that military members would continue to receive their paychecks. But other attempts to fund veterans programs, national parks and other individual agencies have been met with opposition from Senate Democrats.
Neither side has offered optimism on the possibility of ending the shutdown. Lawmakers have remain deadlocked over an extension of the federal budget and whether to include changes to the Affordable Care Act in any deal.
In addition, Veterans Affairs officials have warned that survivor benefits and other veterans payouts could be jeopardized if the shutdown continues into late November.
In the Senate on Tuesday, Sen. John McCain, a Vietnam veteran, summed up the feelings of many.
“I’m ashamed!” he said. “I’m embarrassed. All of us should be.”
An Army honor guard member salutes Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013, at Arlington National Cemetery, where a burial service was held for two World War II Army Air Force members whose missing remains were recovered at a crash site in Papua New Guinea that was excavated in 2012.
Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes