Shutdown Shame: Denying Troop Death Benefits

Roland Balik/U.S. Air Force

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The families of U.S. troops killed in combat during the shutdown will have to wait for an end to Washington’s gridlock to get emergency death benefits. By Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Call it a promise placed on hold.

On Saturday, a U.S. Marine was killed in Helmand province. On Sunday, four troops were killed by an IED in southern Afghanistan. Until the shutdown ends, none of their families can expect to receive the “death gratuity” of $100,000 promised to immediately reach them within 24 to 36 hours. Grieving families also cannot expect the military to cover all the usual costs of family travel to meet their loved ones returning home for burial in American flag-draped coffins through Dover Air Force Base. And if the shutdown continues into November, monthly survivor benefits are in jeopardy because the Department of Veterans Affairs has warned it will be out of cash to pay them.

Never before has America faced a government at war and a government shutdown at the same time. Even if much of America forgets the former while enduring the latter, the grim truth of these dueling realities is that they should not coexist given Washington’s central role in prosecuting America’s conflicts. 

Now, on the anniversary of America’s longest war, in Afghanistan, a battle that barely brushes against most Americans’ lives, soldiers heading into the fight face greater uncertainty than ever before. That includes the central question of what happens to their families if they don’t make it home.

The death gratuity’s purpose, the Army notes, is to “help the survivors in their readjustment and to aid them in meeting immediate expenses incurred.”  Advocates say that bereaved military families they work with often use the money to cover funeral costs, to pay for family travel and to bridge the sudden end to a spouse’s regular paycheck, which cuts off immediately upon death. Life insurance payments continue to be paid, but those typically take a week or so to arrive and, when they do, come in a book of bank drafts that must be deposited in a bank. The death gratuity, by contrast, arrives by electronic transfer for immediate use.

The Pentagon readily acknowledges the benefits breach, but says its hands are tied.

“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 Friday to explain Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s interpretation of last week’s 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.”

Lawmakers hastily assembled the bill to keep military paychecks coming despite Washington’s shutdown — and to show Congress and the White House’s commitment to America’s troops despite their mistrust of one another. But the measure’s vague language has sown widespread confusion among active duty military and their families as to what the law does and does not cover. All the questions and the death gratuity’s shutdown-induced stoppage have left active duty troops, some of whom ship off to war this very week, to wonder what will happen if they are killed in action, leaving their wives, mothers, children and husbands behind?

After all, the casualties of war do not stop just because Washington does.

“These benefits are in place to help support people who paid the ultimate price in service to their country, and for our families it is really important that these supports be there,” says Ami Neiberger-Miller of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, which advocates on behalf of military families.  Neiberger-Miller’s brother was killed in Iraq six years ago and she remembers how important the death gratuity was to her family at the time. “These benefits were created by design to support people during the most tragic and terrible moments of their life.”

Hale called the situation “heart-rending.” But he said that the Pentagon is simply “not allowed, by law,” to pay the money due families while the government is shut down.

[Read Defense One’s complete coverage of the government shutdown here]

Advocates working overtime to help survivors figure out travel costs and manage the financial unknowns say that families already reeling from the devastation of loss now suffer a second time — this time at the hands of a government failing those who give their lives in its service.

“They are benefits that are promised by our country, by all of us, to these families,” Neiberger-Miller says. “When the serviceman swears that oath that says ‘I will protect and defend,’ we make a promise back to that person that if they do die in service to this country that we will take care of their family.”

Right now Washington seems only to be taking care of itself.

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