As military families gathered at Dover Air Force Base Wednesday to meet their fallen loved ones, lawmakers less than 100 miles away attempted to stem public outrage over scuttled financial aid to the families.
Updated 2:36 p.m.
President Obama expects to find a way to restore a $100,000 death benefit to the families of fallen soldiers as early as Wednesday.
The president directed the Department of Defense and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to come up with a solution, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday.
The $100,000 “death gratuity” delivered to surviving spouses and dependents is designed to tide families over until survivor benefits take effect, and covers immediate costs like flights to meet the caskets and the burial. But the government shutdown halted those payments. Families of 26 service members have not received the benefit since a budget impasse triggered by a Republican protest over President Obama’s health care law shut the government Oct. 1. Each family has had to incur thousands of dollars in expenses in the immediate aftermath.
“For the sacrifice that our kids are making, at the age they’re making them, I don’t understand how this can be a benefit that’s withheld. I won’t ever understand it,” Shannon Collins, the mother of fallen serviceman Marine Lance Cpl. Jeremiah Collins, told NBC News. Her son died Saturday in Afghanistan’s Helmand province.
The families of four other U.S. service members killed in Afghanistan over the weekend gathered at Dover Air Force Base to meet their fallen loved ones Wednesday. They were joined by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Secretary of the Army John McHugh, and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno.
“The government is hurting the wrong people,” Collins said. “Families shouldn’t have to worry about how they’re going to bury their child,” she said. “Families shouldn’t have to worry about how they’re going to feed their family if they don’t go to work this week.”
After NBC’s Andrea Mitchell broke the story of the missing benefit, a number of lawmakers moved to reinstate the pay. Some members of Congress said they thought the “death gratuity” was included in the Pay Our Military Act passed last week to keep paychecks on schedule for military personnel during the shutdown.
The House voted unanimously to reinstate the benefit to military families on Wednesday afternoon. While the Senate has rejected previous House mini-funding bills during the shutdown, Senate leaders expressed outrage on the denial of payment for any military members or their families. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called the benefit delay “shameful and embarrassing” Tuesday, as did Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham.
In the meantime, private charities including Maryland’s Fisher House Charity, have vowed to fill the gap by covering the benefit amount until the government is able to offer reimbursement.
“This was one of those decisions that I wish I had every day, which is the no-brainer kind,” Fisher told Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC Wednesday. He said he received a phone call from Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin of Virginia who asked “if Fisher House would step up and actually fill this gap.”
“It’s a privilege to be able to do it,” Fisher said. “I just hope that somebody wakes up down there and decides that enough is enough and people are suffering because of this, especially the one percent of this nation that raises their hand and goes and serves to defend us.”
The Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki, testified before a House hearing Wednesday, on the shutdown’s impact on veterans, including a delay in the processing of already backlogged disability and pensions claims for veterans.
“The shutdown directly threatens the VA’s ability to eliminate the backlog,” he said. “We have lost ground we fought hard to take. Roughly 1,400 veterans a day are not receiving decisions on their disability claims due to the end of overtime.”
“If the shutdown doesn’t end in the coming weeks, [the Department of Veterans’ Affairs] will not be able to assure delivery of Nov. 1 checks to 5.18 million beneficiaries” totaling $6.25 billion dollars in payments, Shinseki said.
He said he would be forced to furlough all but 1,000 workers if the shutdown stayed in place. About one-third of workers in the Department of Veterans Affairs are veterans.
“If they’re furloughed and they’re also recipients of disability checks, their resources go to zero,” Shinseki said. “And then I have the responsibility of trying to keep them from becoming homeless.”
Around 800,000 federal workers have been furloughed since October 1.