Charity steps in to pay military survivor benefits during shutdown as House votes to reinstate, again

posted at 9:21 pm on October 9, 2013 by Mary Katharine Ham

It remains unclear why the payment to families of those who die on active duty is not authorized under the one funding bill Congress did pass. The Pay Our Military Act was designed to make sure the military is paid during shutdown, and House Republicans are now accusing the Pentagon of playing politics with this sacred obligation. But now it’s clear families will continue to get payment, from private charity the Fisher House Foundation, which specializes in serving the families of the injured.

WASHINGTON — The Defense Department will lean on a private charity to deliver survivor benefit payouts to the families of fallen servicemembers while the government shutdown drags on, Pentagon officials announced Wednesday.

In a statement, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the military had entered an agreement with the Fisher House Foundation to provide grieving families “the full set of benefits they have been promised, including a $100,000 death gratuity payment.”

Charity officials will advance the money as quickly as possible after a death, and defense officials will repay the charity after the government shutdown ends or when new legislation fixing the problem is passed.

The House passed a new piece of legislation unanimously today to solve this problem, but they also insist it was already taken care of in the Pay Our Military Act— the only one of a slew of individual spending bills that passed both houses of Congress. Representatives, who believed this act had taken care of all military benefits— Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Rep. Buck McKeon said it was “our clear intent”— felt sandbagged when the Pentagon’s refusal of death benefits emerged in the media.

On Friday, in response to the rumors, Congressman Joe Wilson sent this letter to Sec Hagel asking whether there was a problem with paying the death gratuity or other benefits, and whether this or any other benefits required specific authorizations from Congress.

There was never a response from Obama Administration or DoD to the Congressional inquiry.

“Tuesday morning, we learn on NBC’s Today Show –not from DoD– that there are four KIAs coming home, and their families will not receive the death gratuity,” the aide said. “The only warning we had was from George Little on Twitter.

He’s referring to this tweet: ”Congress needs to act to end ‪#shutdown. Awful that we do not currently have authority to pay death gratuities for families of fallen heroes.”

The Wilson letter to Hagel specifically asked about the death gratuity, as well as benefits for covering burial costs.

“What legal justifications are Pentagon lawyers using to say they did not have authorization to pay the death gratuity?” this aide asks. “ What other benefits will DoD retroactively decide they cannot pay? Will we have to vote for every benefit, despite the broad authorization that we gave them in the Pay Our Military Act?”

Wilson is still after the Pentagon for details on why this payment was deemed unauthorized and whether they’ll decide any others are:

“The Department of Defense’s refusal to pay the death gratuity or burial benefit is inexcusable,” said Chairman of the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee Rep. Joe Wilson (R., S.C.).

“The grieving families of our service members who have paid the ultimate sacrifice defending our country deserve these benefits,” he said in a statement. “It was Congress’ intent when we passed the ‘Pay Our Military Act’ that these benefits be provided without question to our military families.”

Wilson said the failure to make the payments “confirms that the administration is trying to inflict as much pain as possible on our nation’s most vulnerable people during the government shutdown.”…

The Pentagon is conducting a legal review of the legislation and Wilson said he is concerned “further delays may interrupt essential pays and allowances.”

“We cannot in good conscience deny these benefits to the survivors of deceased members,” Wilson stated.

Included with the letter is a list of pay and allowances for the military that includes the death gratuity.

“I request that you provide me a summary of which of the pays and allowances on that list that will not be paid and the rationale for non-payment,” Wilson said. “If there are other pays and allowances not on the attached list, I ask that you identify them in your response with an explanation of whether they will be paid or not.”

David French offers a legal analysis and determines that, surprise, the Dept. of Defense is interpreting the law as uncharitably as it suits them to serve the shutdown narrative:

Thus, through a rather simple, good-faith drafting error, Congress gave the secretary of defense room to maneuver on the delivery of benefits to military families, and the Department of Defense’s civilian masters have made an incredible choice, one that no line unit in the military would ever make if it had control over funding for its own soldiers and their families: to exclude death benefits from the “pay and allowances” appropriated by Congress. There are two simple fixes. The simplest is for the Department of Defense to interpret the statute consistent with Congress’s intent and fund military benefits. The second is to pass a new statute correcting any ambiguity in the Pay Our Military Act. If the DOD doesn’t act, the House will, and surely the Senate will follow. Or will you, Senator Reid?

Finally, regarding the news that contracted Catholic priests are barred from ministering to soldiers during the shutdown? Well, that’s also the secretary of defense’s call. The Pay Our Military Act did clearly provide appropriations for “contractors of the Department of Defense” whom the “Secretary concerned determines are providing support to members of the Armed Forces.” In other words, appropriations exist for these chaplains, but they’re not even permitted to volunteer. Inexcusable.

Reid’s move. He’ll have to act because it’s the right thing to do because he certainly won’t get called on it if he doesn’t.

The Fisher House Foundation is a great charity that provides invaluable housing and care for families of injured near military hospitals while their loved ones are in treatment. I’ve visited families at the Fisher House at Walter Reed, and it’s hard to overstate how important it is for families to be near their loved ones without worrying about costs. Or, how powerful it is for recovering warriors to have their wives, husbands, parents, and children with them as they travel the long road back to normalcy.

According to its website, the organization has served more than 180,000 current and former military families since its inception — including about 19,000 last year.

Hospitals or military commanders decide who stay at the 62 Fisher Houses, which typically contain eight to 21 suites and can house 16 to 42 people at a time. Tenants remain for 10 days on average, though those injured in combat might stay for months.

Wherever they’re staying, for however long, the cost is the same: $0. The organization pays for all of it, estimating it has saved families (and the military) more than $200 million in lodging and transportation costs in the process.

Help them, here.


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