Shutdown blocks payments to slain troops’ families

James Rosen | Tribune Media

Lawmakers, veterans and others expressed outrage Tuesday over the Pentagon’s view that the partial government shutdown is preventing it from making quick $100,000 payments to the relatives of slain troops intended to help cover funeral costs and expenses for bereaved survivors.

The controversy was sparked after senior military officers praised two Army Rangers and two other military service members who died in Afghanistan over the weekend, but said the cash death benefits could not be wired to their families’ bank accounts within three days as is the normal Pentagon practice.

Paul Rieckhoff, an Iraq war veteran and head of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization supporting former troops, used his Facebook page to circulate a petition asking Americans to demand that the death payments and other benefits for military families be restored at once. Several other burial- related benefits also have been affected by the shutdown.

“Politicians are still receiving paychecks, but our government is unable to provide the money to support the families of warriors killed in action,” Rieckhoff wrote on his blog.

The families of 17 members of the military who’ve perished since the shutdown began last week haven’t received the cash payments, Rieckhoff said. He cited other suspended activities, among them a range of services for veterans and National Guard drills in many states.

“We are extremely incensed that the families which have just made the sacrifice of their loved ones have something else thrown at them,” said Kathleen Moakler, government relations director for the National Military Family Association, a nonprofit group that aids families of service members.

Bipartisan groups of senators and representatives quickly introduced bills and fired off letters to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in a bid to get the money flowing again to survivors of deceased soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.

“We can never let the welfare of our troops and their families become pawns in a political contest,” said Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “If the Pentagon believes they need more explicit authority to disburse these payments, I am sure the House will provide it in short order.”

At a meeting Monday convened by Hagel, civilian and military leaders of the Pentagon said they lack the authority to provide the death benefits under the shutdown that began last week.

“All of the leaders noted that despite the recall of most civilians and the resumption of many activities across the Department of Defense, there are critical programs and benefits that remain halted,” Pentagon press secretary George Little said.

Rep. Ron Barber, D-Ariz., introduced a bill that would make “emergency appropriations” and grant the Pentagon explicit authority to restart the cash payments to pay for funerals, travel, lodging and other expenses incurred by relatives of slain warriors.

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., a member of a key Pentagon appropriations subcommittee, sent Hagel a letter that was signed by colleagues from both parties.

“We strongly urge you to use whatever legal discretion you have to ensure that the nation can fulfill that sacred obligation, and to promptly notify us of changes required under the law while the Congress continues to work towards opening the government,” the lawmakers wrote.

Other senators who signed the letter were Democratic Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Chris Coons and Tom Carper of Delaware. Republicans Sens. Jerry Moran of Kansas and John Boozman of Arkansas also signed.

Moran eulogized Sgt. Patrick Hawkins, an Army Ranger and fellow Kansan who was one of four soldiers who died Sunday when a hidden bomb exploded while they were conducting combat operations in the Kandahar province of Afghanistan, according to the Pentagon.

“Sgt. Hawkins bravely answered the call to serve our country, and we will forever be indebted to him for his service and sacrifice on his behalf,” Moran said.

Another Army Ranger, Pfc. Cody J. Patterson of Oregon, died in the same bomb blast, along with 1st Lt. Jennifer M. Moreno, an Army nurse, and Sgt. Joseph M. Peters, a special agent and crime scene technician with Army Criminal Investigations.

Hawkins was on his fourth deployment to Afghanistan and Patterson was on his second, the Pentagon said. They had previously been based at Fort Benning, Ga.

Moreno, a native of San Diego, was on her first deployment to Afghanistan. She had previously served at the Madigan Army Medical Center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Tacoma, Wash.

Peters was a military intelligence officer from Springfield, Mo., who had been deployed twice in Iraq before being sent to Afghanistan. He’d served in Italy before going to Afghanistan.

Men and women in uniform are receiving paychecks during the shutdown under a measure passed by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama hours before it began at midnight Sept. 30. Hagel on Saturday announced plans to call back 400,000 Pentagon civilian employees, saying that law gave him the authority to do so.

But the payments to deceased soldiers’ survivors were stopped, and they remained on hold Tuesday.

Jonathan Landay, Lindsay Wise, Tish Wells and David Goldstein of the Washington Bureau contributed.

By James Rosen
McClatchy Washington Bureau