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Foundation To Pay Military Death Benefits During Shutdown

Oct 10, 2013
Originally published on October 10, 2013 7:39 am

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

On a Thursday, this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

The remains of four American service members were returned yesterday to Dover Air Force Base. They were killed in Afghanistan.

GREENE: The United States had committed to look after their families, as it has cared for families for generations. It was Abraham Lincoln in 1865 who called for the United States: To care for him who shall have born the battle and for his widow and orphan. His words are now the motto of the United States Veterans Affairs. But in this case, an immediate death benefit was not paid to the families because of the partial government shutdown.

INSKEEP: This is one of two federal obligations we'll hear about today that have now been taken up by private citizens. We start with NPR's Tom Bowman.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Since the shutdown began on October 1st, 26 service members have died; six of them in Afghanistan, most in the U.S. from a variety of causes - car accidents, for example.

When a member of the military dies, whether in combat or not, the family is paid a $100,000 death gratuity. It's supposed to come within three days and help defray the costs of travel or a funeral. But the government shutdown halted the death benefits for service members including the ones brought home to Dover yesterday.

The controversy surfaced Monday. Pentagon officials announced they had no authority to pay the benefits to survivors. That led to families telling their stories and officials scrambling for a solution. Senator John McCain, of Arizona, said members of Congress should be embarrassed and ashamed by the suspension of death benefits.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said yesterday that Congress was told about the problem before the government closed.

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE SPOKESMAN: Congress was informed, as it was informed of all of the consequences of a shutdown.

BOWMAN: And Carney said that President Obama had ordered Pentagon and budget officials to come up with a solution.

SPOKESMAN: When he found out that this was not addressed, he directed that a solution be found and we expect one today.

BOWMAN: For its part, the House voted unanimously on Wednesday to restore the survivor death benefit. But the vote wasn't necessary. By day's end, there was a solution: The death benefits will be paid during the government shutdown by a private non-profit group called the Fisher House Foundation. The foundation provides housing, so relatives can be close to wounded service members at military hospitals.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says the foundation will be reimbursed once the shutdown ends.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.