Though the government shutdown has not halted U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan, it has put a stop to the $100,000 check military families receive when a loved one dies there, sparking outrage today among some lawmakers.
Known as the "death gratuity," the money is normally paid to the families of America's fallen soldiers within three days of their death in a combat zone.
Lawmakers' frustration over the delayed payments boiled over on Capitol Hill today.
"I say to those families, 'Your government's let you down at a time when you're in need,'" Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters. "There is no excuse for this."
On the Senate floor, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he was "embarrassed" and "ashamed."
"All of us should be," he said, calling on members of both parties to "sit down and talk like grownups" about ending the government shutdown.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the situation was "shameful and embarrassing."
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., announced today that a private foundation has stepped forward to help. "The Fisher House generously agreed to offer the families an advance grant until the government can make reimbursements at an appropriate time," Manchin said in a statement. "The Fisher House will also cover flights, hotels and other incidentals for family members."
Ken Fisher, chairman and CEO of Fisher House Foundation, said, "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."
Manchin thanked the Fisher House Foundation for stepping forward "to make sure there is no funding gap during a time of unimaginable grief. "
Before the shutdown, which began one week ago, Pentagon Comptroller Bob Hale explained that the gratuity would still be paid out to families if paperwork was being processed before Oct. 1. During the shutdown, however, these benefits are not being paid to the families who have lost loved ones in combat. Once the shutdown ends the processing will begin and the payments will be made - but they will be delayed, Hale said.
That is little comfort for the families of five confirmed U.S. fatalities that have occurred since the start of the shutdown a week ago.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., wrote Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel today to say that the death gratuity payments should never have been interrupted in the first place.
He argued that the recently enacted Pay Our Military Act "provides the authority to issue payment of death gratuity and other appropriate pay and allowances." Hunter said the Pentagon's decision not to issue the death gratuity was "a matter of choice" and that insisting on Congress to fix the situation "overstates the complexity of the problem and deflects responsibility."
Hunter attributed the cut off in payments of the death gratuity to what he called a "careless legal interpretation," which he said "is now mistakenly denying payments of Death Gratuity and other benefits to the families of those who make the ultimate sacrifice."
Also suspended during the shutdown is the program that pays for the travel of families to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to witness the return of their loved ones as well as burial and funeral expenses. That means families that wanted to travel to Dover would have to pay out of their own pockets.
The shutdown has not interrupted other benefits paid to the families of fallen military service members, including $400,000 life-insurance payments; the Survivor Benefit Program, a monthly stipend based on the deceased's base duty pay that is paid by the Treasury out of a retirement fund; and the Special Survivors Indemnity Allowance, which is payable to the surviving spouse of active-duty service members whose survivor benefit is offset by Veterans Administration dependency and indemnity compensation.
The death gratuity used to be $12,000 until 2005, when Congress passed a law that substantially increased it to $100,000. It also made the increase retroactive to Oct. 7, 2001, so families who had lost loved ones in that time frame got the same payment. The year 2005 was also when Congress increased the size of the life insurance paid to military families from $250,000 to $400,000. The increased payment was also made retroactive to October 2001.