Obama, lawmakers scramble to help families of fallen warriors

James Rosen | Tribune Media

Amid the bitter discord in Washington, there is unanimity on one thing: Political squabbling shouldn’t stop the government from honoring fallen soldiers.

President Barack Obama directed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Wednesday to accept an offer from a private foundation to make $100,000 payments to the families of deceased current or former military members, and he urged Congress to enact legislation authorizing the Pentagon to resume such payments during the partial government shutdown.

“I’m not going to wait for Congress, and I asked Chuck Hagel . . . to go ahead and fix it, and it’s going to get fixed today,” Obama told NBC affiliate WFLA in Tampa, Fla.

Furious lawmakers, veterans and others had written Hagel letters about the suspended death benefits, which the Pentagon normally wires to bank accounts of surviving relatives within three days of the death of anyone who served in the U.S. military.

“We appreciate the generosity of the Fisher House Foundation, which has always been so generous to service members and their families,” said Kathleen Moakler, government relations director for the National Military Family Association, a nonprofit group that aids families of service members. “It is fortunate that they could be there when a dysfunctional government could not be.”

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted unanimously to approve emergency funding for the death benefits, with the Democratic-led Senate expected to pass the measure.

“There may be differences in opinion over the fiscal direction of this country, but we should be united in the need to do right by our military families,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said on the Senate floor. “The way they have been treated is outrageous and unacceptable and must be rectified immediately.”

After gaining congressional passage and Obama’s signature, the law would authorize the Pentagon to start its normal practice of making the quick payments to help survivors cover funeral costs and other expenses.

Even the Senate chaplain, the Rev. Barry Black, opened the day’s legislative session with an appeal to a higher power.

“Lord, when our federal shutdown delays payments of death benefits to the families of children dying on faraway battlefields, it’s time for our lawmakers to say, ‘Enough is enough,’” Black intoned. “Cover our shame with the robe of your righteousness. Forgive us, reform us and make us whole.”

Seventeen current or former military members have died since the shutdown started; among them were five slain during combat in Afghanistan.

Fisher House has built or donated 61 homes around the world since 1991 to provide temporary lodging to relatives of hospitalized soldiers or veterans so they can be near wounded family members as they recover from injuries.

Ken Fisher, chairman and CEO of the foundation, said the nonprofit, nonpartisan group felt duty-bound to fill the breach caused by the partial shutdown that began last week.

“After losing a loved one in service to our nation, these families should not have to endure more pain as the result of political squabbling,” he said.

Until the law authorizing death benefits is enacted, the Fisher House, based in Rockville, Md., near Washington, will provide the money and will later be reimbursed for the death benefit payments after the shutdown ends, Hagel said.

The defense secretary, a Vietnam War veteran and the highest-ranking Republican in Obama’s Cabinet, said Fisher House had made the offer to cover the payments.

“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,” Hagel said.

A former U.S. senator from Nebraska, Hagel took a swipe at lawmakers who have been unable to settle the budget standoff: “Congress has responsibilities, and it has abdicated them.”

Furious lawmakers, veterans and others had written Hagel letters about the suspended death benefits. He said the Pentagon had halted them after the shutdown began at midnight Sept. 30 because its lawyers determined that the agency lacked the authority to make them.

“In this government shutdown, the one group we don’t want to see suffer are the families of the fallen,” said Cindy Campbell, spokeswoman for the foundation.

Sen. Joe Manchin, a first-term Democrat from West Virginia, approached Fisher House about the suspended payments Tuesday, and it then made arrangements with the Defense Department, Campbell said.

“It is a shame that this shutdown is falling on the backs of our military families who have already given so much for this great country,” said Manchin, who thanked the foundation for its generosity.

Hours before the shutdown began last week, Congress passed and Obama signed into law a measure ensuring that men and women in uniform would continue to get paid. Hagel said Saturday that under the law, he would call back 400,000 Defense Department civilian workers who’d been furloughed.

David Lightman, Justine McDaniel, Lesley Clark and Anita Kumar of the Washington Bureau contributed.

By James Rosen
McClatchy Washington Bureau