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Shutdown halts death benefits for military families

Oct. 8, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Jeremiah M. Collins Jr.
The government shutdown is delaying the $100,000 death gratuity benefit the Defense Department typically provides after service members are killed while on active duty. Pictured: A Marine carry team carries the transfer case containing the remains of Marine Lance Cpl. Jeremiah M. Collins Jr., of Milwaukee, Wis., upon arrival at Dover Air Force Base, Del. on Oct. 7. (Jose Luis Magana / AP)
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A growing number of military families are facing temporary denial of the $100,000 death gratuity benefit the Defense Department typically provides after service members are killed while on active duty.

At least 17 troops have died — including six killed in Afghanistan — since the government shutdown began Oct. 1. But their family members have not immediately received the lump sum payments known as a “gratuity benefits.”

That money typically is wired into the accounts of designated beneficiaries and helps cover immediate costs related to the death, which can include travel to Dover Air Force Base, Del., where caskets of fallen troops ceremoniously are returned from overseas.

A Pentagon official said the benefits payments were suspended because the law that Congress passed on Sept. 30 to ensure that troops get paid during the shutdown was worded in such a way that it does not permit payments to family members.

“If the department was allowed to make death gratuity payments at any point during shutdown, they would’ve been paid with great relief,” a defense official said. “The Pay Our Military Act does not authorize any payments to family members of service members and therefore cannot be used to legally justify the payment of survivor benefits.”

In addition to the death gratuity, family members also will be unable to receive burial benefits or any undistributed pay and allowances the deceased service members may be due. All payments will be made retroactively after the government resumes operations, but it remains unclear when that will happen.

Payments that will continue despite the shutdown include the Survivor Benefit Program, a monthly stipend based on the deceased’s base pay, because that money comes from the U.S. Treasury’s retirement fund. And claims for the Servicemembers Group Life Insurance will be processed during the shutdown.

One Republican lawmaker criticized the Defense Department for what he called a “careless legal interpretation” and said the payments should be issued under the current laws. California Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Marine reservist who has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Tuesday urging him to read the law’s intent differently.

“The Department’s decision to not make these payments is a matter of choice. And until a correction is made to the law, it is up to you to make the appropriate judgment based on a more correct interpretation. Insisting Congress is needed to fix the situation overstates the complexity of the problem and deflects responsibility,” Hunter wrote.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a Pentagon spokesman, declined to comment on Hunter’s letter, saying Hagel will respond directly.

Military officials provide grieving families with information about charity groups that help those who’ve lost loved ones, but the Pentagon cannot directly solicit funds from those organizations to help cover death gratuity benefits because that would be a violation of federal ethics regulations.

Troops killed in action whose families will be affected by the suspended death gratuity include Marine Lance Cpl. Jeremiah M. Collins Jr., 19, of Milwaukee, Wis.

Just days before his death, Collins vented his frustration with the government shutdown on his Facebook page.

“I am waiting for the moment they breach my contract. Just waiting, I am out here in Afghan so I can’t just leave, but I can sit the f--- down and not give two s----,” Collins wrote on Oct. 3. “Get it together Obama and not to mention Congress. Jesus! Make up your minds, I will protect the being of my country with my life, but do not go [messing] with the men and women that protect your sorry asses.”

Collins died Oct. 5, and his death remains under investigation.

Four soldiers were killed on Oct. 7 by an improvised explosive device in southern Afghanistan. They included Army First Lt. Jennifer M. Moreno, 25, of San Diego, Sgt. Patrick Hawkins, 25, of Carlisle, Pa.; Sgt. Joseph M. Peters, 24, of Springfield, Mo.; and Pfc. Cody Patterson, 24, of Philomath, Ore., defense officials said.

Defense officials reported a sixth casualty since Oct. 1, but the name of that service member has not been released.

Congress is moving quickly to draft legislation to restore the death gratuity; a vote could come as early as Tuesday evening in the Senate.

The death gratuity is provided tax-free and is given to active-duty troops’ family members regardless of the cause of death.

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