Foundation To Pay Military Death Benefits During Shutdown

The partial government shutdown has forced the Pentagon to delay payments to the families of troops killed while serving in the U.S. military. Normally these families would receive a $100,000 payment three days after the death of member of the Armed Forces. More than 20 have died since the shutdown began. A private, non-profit group called the Fisher House Foundation will pay the death benefits during the shutdown.

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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 soldiers 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." Those words are now the motto of the Department of 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 Oct. 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. Sen. 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: 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.

CARNEY: 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, nonprofit 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.

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