Obama Signs Bill to Reinstate Troop Death Benefits During the Shutdown

Troops say a prayer beside the transfer case containing the remains of Army Sgt. Michael Cable, 26, of Philpot, Ky., at Dover AFB in March.

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Troops say a prayer beside the transfer case containing the remains of Army Sgt. Michael Cable, 26, of Philpot, Ky., at Dover AFB in March.

President Obama signed the bill Thursday after the Fisher House Foundation offered to pay death benefits to families of fallen troops during the shutdown. By Stephanie Gaskell

President Obama signed a bill to allow the families of United States troops killed during the shutdown to receive death benefits. The relief for those families comes one day after the Fisher House Foundation had agreed to foot the bill until the government shutdown ends, and more than a week after a previous bill was passed but without clear plans to keep the benefits going.

The “death gratuity” includes a $100,000 payment to families within 36 hours to cover burial and travel expenses. It was shut off when the government shut down. Obama signed the Pay Our Military Act, but the legislation was so brief and vague, the administration determined that it didn’t allow the Defense Department to administer the benefits during the shutdown. At least 29 active-duty troops have died since Oct. 1, including six killed in action in Afghanistan. 

After massive public outrage following the Afghan deaths last weekend, the Fisher House Foundation, which builds homes for families of wounded troops to stay in while they recover, contacted Pentagon officials and cut a deal with Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter to cover the costs and be reimbursed once the shutdown is over. Fisher House CEO Ken Fisher told Defense One that he was just doing the right thing. “This segment of society, when they raise their hand, they give an oath and the oath is to defend this nation — with my life if necessary. But this country also takes an oath that if you’re wounded we’ll take care of you; if you don’t make it home, we’ll take care of your family.”

[Click for Defense One‘s complete shutdown coverage.]

At a House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee hearing, on Thursday, several members of Congress accused the Pentagon of using the military to play politics.

“I believe the guidance issued by Comptroller [Robert] Hale was based on a deliberate decision by the Department of Defense to misinterpret the Pay Our Military Act for political purposes,” said Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., who introduced the bill in the days before the shutdown deadline. “My bill cast a wide net, as wide a net as possible to ensure that the department’s civilian personnel, all of whom are necessary to support military operations, can report to work.”

But Hale said the department was following legal guidance from the Justice Department. “I resent your remarks,” Hale said. “I acted on the advice of attorneys and our best reading of a loosely worded law.”

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