A Maryland foundation is stepping into the breach to cover death benefits for the families of fallen service members that were suspended during the government shutdown — including the families of five killed in Afghanistan over the weekend.
In what veterans call an outrageous slight after the ultimate sacrifice, the shuttered federal government is withholding a $100,000 payment, known as the death gratuity, that is normally wired to relatives of fallen service members.
It's typically sent to families within three days to help cover funeral costs or travel to meet the flag-draped coffins of their loved ones.
"It is upsetting because my husband died for his country, and now his family is left to worry," said Ashley Peters of Springfield, Mo., whose husband, Joseph, was a special agent assigned to the Army's 5th Military Police Battalion and was among the five killed. "My husband always said if something happened to him we would be taken care of."
"I'm a stay-at-home mom, which is what my husband wanted," she said. "He wanted me to take care of our son."
As outrage over the lapse built Tuesday, the Fisher House Foundation of Bethesda, Md., offered to cover advance grants until the government can make reimbursements to the foundation.
The grants will also cover flights, hotels and other incidentals, it said.
The foundation — an outgrowth of the private Zachary and Elizabeth M. Fisher Armed Services Foundation in partnership with the Department of Veterans Affairs — operates facilities called Fisher Houses for military veterans and their families at more than 60 VA medical centers and military facilities in the U.S. and Europe.
The Fishers, who were wealthy New York real estate builders, founded the program in 1990. Zachary Fisher was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his commitment to the armed forces in 1998, a year before he died at age 88.
"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, the foundation's chairman and chief executive.
'Leverage in a game of political blame'
Joe Davis, a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the largest organization of combat veterans in the U.S., called the suspension of the death gratuity "just disgusting."
"Veterans, military personnel and now their families are not to be used as leverage in this political game of blame," he said. He called on leaders in Congress to "put the country ahead of their politics."
Congress passed a law last week to pay the military during the shutdown. Pentagon officials studied it to assess whether it might cover the death gratuity and determined that it wasn't possible, a defense official told NBC News on Tuesday.
A defense official added that if the department were allowed to pay the death gratuity, it would be paid "with great relief."
Republican aides in Congress said that they were drafting legislation to restore the death gratuity and that it could be put to a vote as early as Wednesday. The aides also said they believed that last week's law had covered the payment.
"We gave broad authority to the Department of Defense to pay all kinds of bills, including this," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Tuesday afternoon. "And frankly, I think it's disgraceful that they're withholding these benefits. But again, tomorrow, the House is going to act specifically on this, and I hope the president will sign it."
But for now, the $100,000 government payment is being withheld for relatives of the five killed over the weekend in Afghanistan — four from the Army and one from the Marines.
The Marine was Lance Cpl. Jeremiah Collins Jr., 19, of Milwaukee, who the Pentagon said died Saturday while supporting combat operations in Helmand province. The Pentagon said the death was under investigation.
Peters and three soldiers were killed Sunday by an improvised bomb in Zhari district: 1st Lt. Jennifer Moreno, 25, of San Diego; Sgt. Patrick Hawkins, 25, of Carlisle, Pa.; and Pfc. Cody Patterson, 24, of Philomath, Ore.
Jose Luis Magana / AP
A Marine team carries the transfer case containing the remains of Marine Lance Cpl. Jeremiah M. Collins Jr. of Milwaukee on Monday at Dover Air Force Base, Del.
"If Congress were trapped in a car that sunk down in a river, I would swim to the window, and I would look them all in the eye and say, 'Suck water,'" said Patterson's father, Randall Patterson. He used an expletive to characterize members of Congress who "are still getting paid."
Patterson said the military did pay for the flight he was taking Tuesday to Dover Air Force Base, Del., to retrieve his son's body and for his hotel once he arrived.
Peters' mother and brother said they were too upset to talk. His step-grandfather, Peters Jerry, said the sergeant was getting out of the military after this tour so he could be home more with his 20-month-old son.
Any delay in the gratuity would be "devastating," Jerry said, adding that he blamed Republicans and the Tea Party.
Seventeen service members have died since the government shut down Oct. 1, a senior defense official said, including six in Afghanistan. None of the families received the death gratuity.
Other benefits also suspended
It isn't the only benefit that's normally paid to families of fallen soldiers but has been stopped by the shutdown.
Also suspended is a year's worth of housing allowance, typically paid in a lump sum to the surviving spouse or dependent children. For a sergeant in the Washington area with dependents, it amounts to more than $2,000 per month.
And survivors aren't receiving a reimbursement specifically aimed at burial and related expenses. That benefit is $9,000 for burial in a private cemetery and $6,000 for burial in a national cemetery.
"We think it's outrageous," said Tom Berger, executive director of the Veterans Health Council at Vietnam Veterans of America, speaking of the death gratuity.
"That period of time, that bereavement period right after you learn of the family member's death, is so critical," he said. "It can put a lot of stress on a family. That $100,000 goes a long way to taking care of that stress."
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, pointed out that the country had never faced a war and a government shutdown at the same time. She also noted the 12th anniversary, on Monday, of the war in Afghanistan — "a battle that barely brushes against most Americans' lives."
"When people realize that they can serve and fight for their country, but that their families will get an IOU until the shutdown is over, I think they're just shocked," she wrote in a post on the military news site Defense One.
"The casualties of war do not stop just because Washington does," she wrote.
The shutdown stretched into its second week Tuesday. Republicans again insisted on a one-year delay in the federal health care law known as Obamacare in talks on how to make a deal on the budget and restore the government to full operation.
The Fisher House Foundation isn't the only private philanthropy taking the lead in continuing some vital services until the government is back up and running. Texas billionaires John and Laura Arnold donated up to $10 million to fund Head Start education programs in six states.
Sally Aman, a spokeswoman for the National Head Start Association, called the donation "incredibly, incredibly generous" but said it was just a "stopgap."
Tony Dokoupil, Katie Distler, Courtney Kube and M. Alex Johnson of NBC News contributed to this report.
First published October 8 2013, 2:58 PM