President Obama plans to resolve a funding gap that deprived military families of death benefits by signing off on an agreement for a private foundation to make the payouts until the government shutdown is over, a senior White House official said Wednesday.
The deal with Fisher House — which will make the payments now and be reimbursed by the Defense Department later —will fix the embarrassing problem without the need for Congress to reinstate the benefits, officials said.
Asked what he would tell families whose benefits were put on hold by the shutdown, President Obama told NBC affiliate WFLA, "What I say to them is we should have never been there in the first place.
"The theory that we should shut down the government as a negotiation tactic should never have been done in the first place and it does a disservice to all the men and women in uniform and all those veterans who sacrificed for our freedom."
He stressed the need to restore the money quickly.
"I'm not gonna wait for Congress," Obama said. "And I asked Chuck Hagel, the secretary of defense, to go ahead and fix it and it's gonna get fixed today."
The administrative solution came as the House voted unanimously to fund the benefit — $100,000 payment that arrives within days of a soldier’s death, bridging the gap between a military salary and survivor benefits — and with the Senate poised to take it up.
The politicians tried to quell national outrage over the shutdown snag as grieving relatives, denied the help because of the budget impasse in Washington, watched the flag-draped caskets of four soldiers killed in Afghanistan returned to American soil.
“I am offended, outraged, and embarrassed that the government shutdown had prevented the Department of Defense from fulfilling this most sacred responsibility in a timely manner,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement.
Since the suspension of the benefit was detailed in a series of NBC News stories, the families’ immense grief has been compounded by outrage and frustration.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, for his part, was hammered by reporters at an afternoon briefing about when the president learned that the benefit was being suspended.
A senior White House official said that the Defense Department had warned Congress, before it passed a bill to pay the military during the shutdown, that the benefit would be cut off unless it was explicitly addressed.
“The commander-in-chief, when he found out that this was not addressed, he directed that a solution be found, and we expect one today,” the press secretary said, without providing specifics.
Another organization on Wednesday also stepped up, saying it will provide funds to the relatives of the four fallen service members killed over the weekend.
The Special Operations Warrior Foundation, a Tampa-based group near the military’s Special Operations Command, has pledged $20,000 to each of the four families. The funds will be presented Thursday, according to a statement from Joseph Maguire, the president and CEO of the foundation as well as a retired U.S. Navy Vice Admiral.
And while Washington bickered over the budget and tried to restore the benefit, the families tended to their grim retrievals. They gathered at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to watch a white-gloved honor guard carry four flag-covered cases out of the belly of a military jet and into a mortuary truck.
Matt Peters, the brother of Army special agent Joseph Peters, said that nothing mattered but the loss itself.
“We don’t care about shutdowns or payouts or any of that right now,” he told NBC News. “We’re just trying to grieve.”
Peters, assigned to the Army military police, was among four killed over the weekend in Afghanistan whose bodies were being returned to Dover on Wednesday and whose families were denied the benefit, a $100,000 payment known as the death gratuity.
“It is upsetting because my husband died for his country, and now his family is left to worry,” Special Agent Peters’ wife, Ashley, said before boarding a plane to Dover to meet the body of her husband.
The shutdown entered its ninth day no end in sight. The Veterans of Foreign Wars, the largest veterans organization in the country, repeated its disgust and said it was “absolutely appalling and nothing short of a travesty that elected officials continue to receive paychecks and benefits while not providing for those who deserve it.”
While there was no indication on the timing of a Senate vote, Majority Leader Harry Reid pledged that the benefits “are going to be restored, without any question.” Earlier in the day, the chaplain, Barry Black, directly invoked the denial of the benefit in his opening prayer before the chamber.
“Lord, when our federal shutdown delays payments of death benefits to the families of children dying on far-away battlefields, it’s time for our lawmakers to say enough is enough,” he said. “Cover our shame with the robe of your righteousness.”
Some members of Congress were surprised that it was not covered by a law passed just before the shutdown that authorized “pay and allowances” for the military. In any event, the Senate was expected to pass the fix, and Obama to sign it, quickly.
On Tuesday, the Senate sat in almost total silence, summoned to their seats in another rare legislative maneuver, while Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. and a veteran himself, told his colleagues that they should be ashamed.
The grandmother of one of the fallen soldiers, Pfc. Cody Patterson, 24, of Philomath, Ore., began to look beyond the politics as Cody’s father received the body in Dover.
“I have faith in our government,” said the grandmother, Lucy Leach. “They’re going to fix this.”
Peters; Patterson; 1st Lt. Jennifer Moreno, 25, of San Diego; Sgt. Patrick Hawkins, 25, of Carlisle, Pa.; were killed Sunday by an improvised bomb in Zhari district, according to the Pentagon.
Twenty-six service members have died since the government shut down Oct. 1, including five in combat. None of the families of the 26 has received the death gratuity.
Also suspended is a year’s worth of housing allowance, typically paid in a lump sum to the surviving spouse or dependent children of a soldier. For a sergeant in the Washington area with dependents, it could amount to more than $2,000 a month.
And survivors are not 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.
"The government is hurting the wrong people," said Shannon Collins, whose Marine son, Lance Cpl. Jeremiah Collins, died Saturday while supporting combat operations in Helmand province.
“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.”