The fallout from the shameful government shutdown reached a new low this week when the Pentagon refused to award death benefits to the families of four soldiers killed in Afghanistan last weekend.
Although the Pentagon moved quickly Wednesday to restore the benefits after the public uproar, the fact that these families had to endure any delay at all is an outrage.
Congress should now turn its attention to making certain that hundreds of thousands of surviving veterans receive the $6 billion in disability compensation, pension, and education payments that are threatened if the shutdown drags into November.
It’s no surprise that Pentagon officials and some members of Congress reacted to the death benefit debacle by pointing fingers. The Pentagon claims the shutdown prevented the military from awarding the benefits, which include a quick $100,000 payout to each family, a housing allowance for a year, and burial expenses.
Some Republican members of Congress said a bill signed by President Obama that relieved military personnel from furloughs also restored the death benefits and that the Pentagon could have awarded them, although the bill contained no such specific language.
The Pentagon turned to a charity Wednesday to restore the benefits. The Fisher House Foundation, which helps the families of wounded veterans, will pay the benefits and be reimbursed when the shutdown ends.
The four soldiers died during an enemy attack by a suicide bomber. According to the nonprofit Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the families of 17 military members killed since the shutdown have not received the benefits.
Without them, their families bear the expense of traveling to greet the bodies when they return to this country, and with paying the burial costs. “Politicians are still receiving paychecks, but our government is unable to provide the money to support the families of warriors killed in action,” said Paul Rieckhoff, an Iraq war veteran and head of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans nonprofit.
At a congressional hearing Wednesday, Eric Shinseki, the secretary of veterans affairs, told House members that the benefits for 3.8 million disabled veterans are now threatened, along with pension payments for 315,000 veterans and 200,000 surviving spouses and dependents.
The furor over the death benefits is a grim reminder that soldiers continue to die in Afghanistan while this country’s political leaders behave like spoiled children. The four who died over the weekend were 1st Lt. Jennifer Moreno, 25, of San Diego; Sgt. Patrick Hawkins, 25, of Carlisle, Pa.; Sgt. Joseph Peters, 24, of Springfield, Mo.; and Pfc. Cody Patterson, 24, of Philomath, Ore.
Congress can honor our brave soldiers by doing what’s best for the country and ending the shutdown.