Call it a promise placed on hold.
On Saturday, a U.S. Marine was killed in Helmand province. On Sunday, four troops were killed by an IED in southern Afghanistan. Until the shutdown ends, none of their families can expect to receive the “death gratuity” of $100,000 promised to immediately reach them within 24 to 36 hours. Grieving families also cannot expect the military to cover all the usual costs of family travel to meet their loved ones returning home for burial in American flag-draped coffins through Dover Air Force Base. And if the shutdown continues into November, monthly survivor benefits are in jeopardy because the Department of Veterans Affairs has warned it will be out of cash to pay them.
Never before has America faced a government at war and a government shutdown at the same time. Even if much of America forgets the former while enduring the latter, the grim truth of these dueling realities is that they should not coexist given Washington’s central role in prosecuting America’s conflicts.
Now, on the anniversary of America’s longest war, in Afghanistan, a battle that barely brushes against most Americans’ lives, soldiers heading into the fight face greater uncertainty than ever before. That includes the central question of what happens to their families if they don’t make it home.
The death gratuity’s purpose, the Army notes, is to “help the survivors in their readjustment and to aid them in meeting immediate expenses incurred.” Advocates say that bereaved military families they work with often use the money to cover funeral costs, to pay for family travel and to bridge the sudden end to a spouse’s regular paycheck, which cuts off immediately upon death. Life insurance payments continue to be paid, but those typically take a week or so to arrive and, when they do, come in a book of bank drafts that must be deposited in a bank. The death gratuity, by contrast, arrives by electronic transfer for immediate use.
The Pentagon readily acknowledges the benefits breach, but says its hands are tied.
“We’ve had a number of people die recently and we will be able to pay them, but not until the lapse of appropriation ends,” Pentagon Comptroller Bob Hale said in a phone briefing Friday to explain Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s interpretation of last week’s Pay Our Military Act. “We’re trying to be helpful through aid societies and others to the family members who are involved in these tragic circumstances. But unfortunately, we don’t have the legal authority to make those payments.”
Read more: defenseone.com