Fisher House Rescues Defense Department on Death Benefits During Shutdown

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel listens to a speaker before testifying on Syria to the House Armed Services Committee on September 10, 2013.
National Journal
Stephanie Gaskell, Defense One
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Stephanie Gaskell, Defense One
Oct. 9, 2013, 12:37 p.m.

The Fish­er House Found­a­tion, an or­gan­iz­a­tion long- known for caring for wounded troops and their fam­il­ies, will pay death gra­tu­ity be­ne­fits for the fam­il­ies of ser­vice­mem­bers killed dur­ing the gov­ern­ment shut­down — and the Pentagon will back them pay once it’s over.

De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel an­nounced the deal on Wed­nes­day after massive pub­lic out­rage that be­ne­fits — in­clud­ing a $100,000 pay­ment to the fam­ily with­in 36 hours of the death no­tice — would not be paid while the gov­ern­ment is shut down.

“Today I am pleased to an­nounce that the De­part­ment of De­fense is en­ter­ing in­to an agree­ment with the Fish­er House Found­a­tion that will al­low the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to provide the fam­ily mem­bers of fallen ser­vice mem­bers with the full set of be­ne­fits they have been prom­ised, in­clud­ing a $100,000 death gra­tu­ity pay­ment,” Hagel said in a state­ment re­leased shortly after he and Army Sec­ret­ary John McHugh traveled to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware for the dig­ni­fied trans­fer ce­re­mony for four sol­diers who were killed by an IED in Afgh­anistan on Sunday. “After the shut­down ends, DoD will re­im­burse the Fish­er House for the costs it has in­curred.”

“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,” he said.

So is Ken Fish­er, a New York City real es­tate de­veloper who runs the Fish­er House Found­a­tion.

Fish­er said he saw news re­ports that the be­ne­fits would not get paid dur­ing the shut­down and “I star­ted just get­ting an­gri­er and an­gri­er.” The lapse in be­ne­fits be­came more ur­gent with five U.S. troops were killed in Afgh­anistan over the week­end

“We’re still work­ing on how to im­ple­ment this,” Fish­er told De­fense One. He said he’s in touch with Pentagon of­fi­cials to fig­ure out how to ad­min­is­ter the checks. The found­a­tion could give money dir­ectly to the fam­il­ies, but there’s an is­sue of pri­vacy, or give the money to the De­fense De­part­ment, but there’s un­cer­tainty over wheth­er DoD can pro­cess the checks dur­ing the shut­down. “At the end of the day if I have to drive it down my­self and give it to them, I will,” Fish­er said. “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.”

On Tues­day night, Fish­er vowed to help the fam­il­ies of the fallen. But he said it was Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who sits on the Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, who urged Fish­er to co­ordin­ate with the Pentagon. “I can ab­sorb it, but I can’t ab­sorb it in­def­in­itely. I’ll do what I can for as long as I can,” he said.

In his state­ment an­noun­cing the deal, Hagel said he warned Con­gress about the lapse in death be­ne­fits. “In the days after the shut­down, de­part­ment­al law­yers and budget of­fi­cials pur­sued every tool and op­tion at our dis­pos­al in an ef­fort to provide these be­ne­fits. Even un­der the Pay Our Mil­it­ary Act, we found that we lacked the ne­ces­sary au­thor­ity to make pay­ments to the fam­il­ies dir­ectly,” he said. Pentagon Comp­troller Bob Hale also men­tioned the lapse dur­ing a press brief­ing at the Pentagon be­fore the gov­ern­ment shut down. But it wasn’t un­til troops were killed in Afgh­anistan that Con­gress and the White House ac­ted to fix the prob­lem.

The Fish­er House Found­a­tion was foun­ded in 1990. It has built 63 Fish­er Houses — liv­ing fa­cil­it­ies near mil­it­ary hos­pit­als that fam­il­ies of wounded troops can stay dur­ing re­cov­ery — and is plan­ning to open an­oth­er in Nashville, Tenn., next month.

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