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Taps is played at a funeral of a soldier killed in Afghanistan at Arlington National Cemetery on March 27, 2013.
Taps is played at a funeral of a soldier killed in Afghanistan at Arlington National Cemetery on March 27, 2013. (C.J. Lin/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — Defense Department Comptroller Robert Hale on Thursday told a congressional panel that the lapse in death gratuity payments was just one effect of the shutdown “tragedy” that wasted resources and resulted in secondary budget damage, such as interest payments and deferred training.

The original author of the Pay Our Military Act, Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., began the hearing on a harsh note by accusing Hale and the Defense Department of failing to correctly interpret the law for political reasons. In his view, the law made possible the recall of thousands of furloughed DOD civilians and the payment of the death gratuity and other special pays.

“My bill cast as wide a net as possible,” Coffman said. “There was a deliberate decision to misinterpret the law for political purposes.”

Angered by the Pentagon’s interpretation of the law, the House on Wednesday and the Senate early Thursday — both by unanimous votes — passed additional legislation to make sure the payments could happen.

But late Wednesday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the situation was resolved, by working through the nonprofit Fisher House Foundation.

Hale said 29 members of the U.S. military have died since Oct. 1.

Hale also reported that 95 percent of the department’s civilian workers are back at work because of the new Pay Our Military Act, but about 40,000 employees remain on furlough because of how the law was written.

Testifying before the Subcommittee on Readiness of the House Armed Services Committee, Hale called the current government shutdown “a tragedy,” but praised the 10-day-old law that both chambers of Congress passed at the end of September and was signed into law by President Barack Obama.

But Hale said after the Pentagon conferred with the Justice Department on how to interpret the law, officials concluded that not all employees could be recalled from furlough.

“We concluded that POMA did not provide for a blanket recall,” Hale said. “[The law] should have said ‘all civilians.’ It did not.”

Because of that, Hale said DOD officials were forced to determine which employees were most essential to the military — a process he called “difficult, time-consuming and hurtful.”

Eventually, Hale said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel decided that employees who were essential to “direct support” could be recalled. That meant about 98 percent of those civilian workers were back at work on Oct. 7, and will be paid Oct. 15.

About 40,000 civilian employees fell outside of that category, however, most of whom are Army Corps of Engineers workers. Many of them are back at work anyway because their pay was provided by prior years’ funding, but that may run out soon, Hale said. Most of the Army Corps employees who are still on furlough are involved in public affairs or auditing.

rushing.jt@stripes.com Twitter: @jtr1

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