How the Shutdown Hurts Families of Fallen Soldiers

Denise Hlavaty of St. Paul, Minnesota sits at the gravesite of her fallen boyfriend U.S. Army SSG Steve Butcher who was killed in Iraq in 2007, at Arlington National Cemetery May 22, 2008 in Arlington, Virginia. Over 1,300 soldiers place flags at each gravesite during the annual pre Memorial Day event to honor the veterans buried there. 
National Journal
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, Defense One
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Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, Defense One
Oct. 8, 2013, 2:34 a.m.

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.

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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