Grieving Military Families Denied Benefits Due To Government Shutdown

CREDIT: AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt

The closure of the federal government has seen Congress scramble to provide relief to active duty military members. Less fortunate have been the families of those killed in service of their country, as the first shutdown in a time of war stretches onward.

The Pentagon just on Tuesday announced the names of four soldiers killed in the line of duty while serving in Afghanistan. All four died from injuries sustained when an improvised explosive device detonated near their unit. Standard procedure in similar circumstances would have the four soldiers’ bodies flown into Dover Air Force Base, where their families — in this case from California, Pennsylvania, Missouri, and Oregon — would be waiting to greet them a final time.

What the federal shutdown has done, however, is make it so that the Pentagon is unsure of its ability to pay for the deceased’s families to fly out to Delaware to meet them. Nor will their families receive the automatic “death gratuity” that families are due to receive in case of the worst. The $100,000 payment, usually wired electronically within 36 hours and meant to cover the expenses of funerals and other financial expenses, is on hold until the Congress passes a budget and reopens the federal government.

“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,” Pentagon Comptroller Bob Hale said in a phone briefing on Friday to explain how the Pentagon interpreted the Pay Our Military Act. “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.”

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel spoke with the military branches’ service chiefs and secretaries on Monday to discuss the problems that the ongoing shutdown is presenting, including the death gratuities currently on hold. According to the readout of the meeting, Hagel “assured the service leaders that he would work closely with them to address these challenges, and support the service members and families impacted by these disruptions.”

While this weekend’s decision to interpret the Pay Our Military Act in such a way that allowed at least half of the furloughed civilian workers to return to work on Monday certainly helped, there remain many issues related to the armed services that Congress has yet to tackle. Veterans have received their most recent benefits check, but could possibly be forced to do without in the face of no new funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Soldiers leaving active duty will also have even more of a wait for their benefits as well, as the shutdown is likely at this point to cause the backlog of applications to grow.