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'Just disgusting': Outrage after shutdown delays payment for families of fallen

(Left to right) Pfc. Cody J. Patterson, Sgt. Patrick C. Hawkins, 1st Lt. Jennifer M. Moreno and Special Agent Joseph M. Peters were killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan on Sunday.
(Left to right) Pfc. Cody J. Patterson, Sgt. Patrick C. Hawkins, 1st Lt. Jennifer M. Moreno and Special Agent Joseph M. Peters were killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan on Sunday.US Army

In what veterans groups call an outrageous slight after the ultimate sacrifice, the shuttered federal government is withholding a $100,000 payment normally wired to relatives of soldiers killed at war.

The payment, known as the death gratuity, is typically sent to families of the fallen within 36 hours to help them cover funeral costs or travel to meet the flag-draped coffins of their loved ones.

The families of five American service members killed over the weekend in Afghanistan have been notified that they will not receive the payment.

“Impacting grieving families when they are at their absolute weakest point is just disgusting,” said Joe Davis, a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the largest organization of combat veterans in the United States.

“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 was not possible, a defense official told NBC News on Tuesday.

So the $100,000 payment, meant to tide families over until military survivor benefits kick in, was being withheld for relatives of the killed over the weekend in Afghanistan, four from the Army and one from the Marines.

“Unfortunately, as a result of the shutdown, we do not have the legal authority to make death gratuity payments at this time,” said Nate Christensen, a spokesman for the Defense Department. “However, we are keeping a close eye on those survivors who have lost loved ones serving in the Department of Defense.”

A defense official added that if the department were allowed to pay the death gratuity during the shutdown, it would be paid “with great relief.”

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 that the death was under investigation.

Four 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.; Sgt. Joseph Peters, 24, of Springfield, Mo.; and Pfc. Cody Patterson, 24, of Philomath, Ore.

The mother and brother of Peters, who was assigned to the Army’s 5th Military Police Battalion, based in Italy, said that they were too upset to talk. His step-grandfather, Peters Jerry, said that the sergeant was getting out of the military after this tour, so that he could be home more with his 20-month-old son.

“It will be devastating,” Jerry said of the delay in the death gratuity. He said that he blamed Republicans and the Tea Party.

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 took note of 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.

Families of the fallen often use the death gratuity to cover funeral and travel expenses, she said, because military paychecks stop immediately upon the death of a soldier, and life insurance payments can take a week or more to arrive.

“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.

Tony Dokoupil and Courtney Kube of NBC News contributed to this report.