Pentagon has Been Warning a Shutdown Would Suspend Death Benefits Since 2011

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel renders honors as a carry team carries the transfer case containing the remains of Army Pfc. Cody Patterson who died in Afghanistan, during a dignified transfer at Dover Air Force Base, Del., Oct. 9. (DoD photo by Sgt. Aaron Hostutler U.S. Marine Corps)

Many in Washington last week were expressing outrage and shock that the US military was not paying death benefits to troops killed in combat due to the government shutdown.

All has since been remedied with Congress late last week passing legislation that allows DoD to pay families of fallen troops the $100,000 death benefit.

House Republicans believe legislation passed prior to the shutdown should have allowed DoD to pay the families of these troops. But DoD said it did not have the legal authority to issue those payments, drawing criticism from GOP lawmakers.

At an Oct. 10 House Armed Services readiness subcommittee hearing, panel Chairman Rob Wittman, R-Va. said the Pay Our Military Act should include the payment of death benefits.

“I was shocked and angered when I learned that five of our nation’s heroes died in Afghanistan over the weekend and their families were informed that benefits could not be paid. These benefits, which fall in the category of military member pay and allowances authorized by the legislation, provide a small amount of financial support as families grieve so that during the most harrowing of times they can focus on what matters most.”

Rep. Duncan Hunter, during an appearance on Fox News, took it a step further calling for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to resign over the issue.

White House spokesman Jay Carney on Oct. 8 said he was not sure when President Obama was notified about DoD not being able to pay the death gratuity.

“I can tell you that when [Obama] learned that these benefits were not explicitly dealt with in the Pay Our Military Act, he was very disturbed and he asked for the OMB and his lawyers to take action.

But for the past two years, DoD has been warning that a government shutdown would cause these payments to stop.

In fact, a senior defense official began sounding the alarm in August 2011, a time when a government shutdown loomed at the end of the fiscal year that September.

From an Aug. 8, 2011 DoD briefing:

“We won’t be able to pay [death benefits] during the period of the shutdown. Basically, we can’t disburse money during the period of the shutdown.”

Pentagon Comptroller Bob Hale more recently warned about a lapse in death benefits on Sept. 27, four days before the shutdown began.

“We would also be required to do some other bad things to our people. Just some examples, we couldn’t immediately pay death gratuities to those who die on active duty during the lapse.”

Marcus Weisgerber
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Marcus Weisgerber

Senior Pentagon Correspondent at Defense News
I write about broad-ranging policy, acquisition and budget issues affecting the US military.
Marcus Weisgerber
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