SHUTDOWN ANGER: Lapse In Fallen Hero Benefits
(CNN) — A lapse in benefits normally paid to the families of U.S. service members killed in combat is adding to the already existing anger over the partial federal government shutdown.
With a good majority of the Pentagon workforce returning to work despite large-scale furloughs hitting other federal agencies, the benefits typically paid to families of the fallen have yet to be restored during the current government shutdown.
“This particular situation is unthinkable,” Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC), said on the House floor Tuesday. “A great injustice is being done to our service members and their families.”
Among the benefits being withheld are a $100,000 cash payment typically paid to a service member’s family within three days of their death in the combat zone. Burial benefits, which include reimbursement for recovery, care, as well as the funeral and interment of remains are also included in those benefits.
A gratuity for travel to funeral or memorial services, or for travel to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware where the remains of the fallen typically go to upon return to the United States, are also included in the benefits to family members.
For people like Amy Neiberger-Miller, who lost her brother Chris in Iraq, the loss of these benefits to families comes as they are living their” worst nightmare.”
For “families with limited means, these benefits are especially critical,” said Neiberger-Miller, who now works T.A.P.S., a support network for families of the fallen.
In addition to the death benefits, emergency funding used to support certain intelligence activities, as well as certain funding for commanders on the ground, are also currently unfunded according to the Pentagon.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel noted the lapse in benefits in a meeting with top Defense Department officials on Monday, and assured them “he would work closely with them to address these challenges,” according to a written readout of the meeting.
In a letter to Hagel, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) said the lapse in funding was due to a “careless legal interpretation” by the Pentagon to a resolution passed by Congress prior to the shutdown that called for the continuation of all benefits to military families.
“I am at a loss about why [the Department of Defense] did not take a more active role in notifying Congress and insisting that changes in law occur immediately,” Hunter wrote. “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.”
Republicans are drafting legislation that would restore death benefit payments, which the Pentagon says were frozen under the shutdown, to the survivors of service members killed in action, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers told CNN.
Discord over the lapse in funding was seemingly bipartisan.
“I want immediately for the $100,000 death benefit and flight to Dover to be immediately given to these families,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D.TX) said on the House floor Tuesday. “I am reaching out to the Pentagon, writing a letter and asking that this be immediately resolved.”
Fisher House, a group that offers assistance to families of troops in need, has offered an advance grant to such families during the shutdown, according to a letter from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) to Hagel.
A spokeswoman for Fisher House said the group would work out a repayment plan with the families once the government begins to reimburse the death benefits.
“We’re also already helping several of them with free airline tickets, and of course, most will be staying at our Dover Fisher House,” the spokeswoman said in a written statement. “If the house is full, we’ll pay the hotel bill and any incidentals.”
–CNN’s Barbara Starr, Deirdre Walsh and Jake Tapper contributed to this report.