Of all the issues that have come to light during the federal government shutdown, this “inability” of the Department of Defense to pay death benefits to the families of those killed in action this past week precipitated a flood of incandescent rage by every military blogger, writer and Facebook friend I know. Republican, conservative, Democrat, liberal, apolitical, it didn’t seem to matter. These death benefits are normally paid to the families of service members killed in action and are immediate. They’re designed to help them get through the aftermath of the death notification and the funeral, the loss of the chief breadwinner and expenses of moving (if they decide to go home from where they were stationed), and the cost of traveling to the military base to be present when the bodies of their loved ones return to American soil. As Karen Meredith, a Gold Star Mother whose son Lt. Ken Ballard died in Iraq, said:
“Delaying the death gratuity is disrespectful and cruel to military families who already carry a heavy burden of war. The death gratuity paid to families of the fallen should be considered an essential and immediate payment during the government shutdown. No discussion, no negotiation and no extortion.”
The visceral anger of the military and veteran communities obviously made a difference, since as of the writing of this piece the House has unanimously passed a bill introduced by Rep. John Barber (D.AZ) to reinstate these death benefit payments. The founder of Fisher House has stepped forward, after discussions with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and will be paying the benefits to the families until this shameful episode is over. Hagel stated that he’s:
“… offended, outraged, and embarrassed that the government shutdown had prevented the Department of Defense from fulfilling this most sacred responsibility in a timely manner. In the days before the shutdown, we warned Congress and the American people that DoD would not have the legal authority to make these payments during a lapse in appropriations. “
When we as a country ask that men and women in uniform put their lives on the line, our obligation, as Abraham Lincoln said in his second inaugural address, is to “care for his widow and his orphan” if they pay that price. Those who died in the past week and a half expected that, their families deserve that. It is shameful that we have to ask a charity that already does so very much for military families during times of crisis to step up and pay what we have promised to our Gold Star families.
We as a country don’t seem to be able to get anything done lately, and the consequences of this are impacting out standing around the world. This latest episode of what some countries must view as a giant temper tantrum of misbehaving toddlers continues to affect the country as the federal workforce is treated like a bunch of toys in a sandbox, thrown out whenever the biggest and crankiest child decides he doesn’t like them.
The other effects of the shutdown, with the emergency passage of this Act and that, and the piecemeal attempts to reassemble the support structure of the military and defense community, are ongoing. One group of civilians is furloughed while another group isn’t, depending on who determes whether or not they are “essential.” Many of the civilian workers furloughed in the past and currently, are veterans themselves. They already lost 20% of their pay in the past few months, as sequestration hit. Now, they are told to go to work, but they may or may not be paid, or stay home with/without pay. Is it any wonder that many DoD civilians are job hunting, hoping to get a new position anywhere that isn’t going to be subjected to these exercises in dysfunctional government?
Support for military families is spotty. Families in the midst of a Permanent Change of Station — being moved by Uncle Sam from state to state or country to country because of military needs — are hoping they can complete their moves before transportation services shut down, all the while wondering if they will be moving as a family or if the service member in the household will have to go alone, hoping they can figure out schedules for moving household goods and changing schools, if there are children involved.
There are so many other lower profile effects on military families because of the shutdown that go unreported. A friend’s child, who had undergone surgery and needed pain medications, was told he wasn’t covered by Tricare (the health program for military members and their families), because the defense enrollment eligibility reporting system hadn’t processed their paperwork before being shut down. Education centers on military posts are closed, so no payments for classes will be made, there will be no testing, no educational counseling services are being staffed, and, according to Rosemary Freitas Williams in the DoD Live Blog , Family Support Centers staffing is optional at the decision of commanders of specific posts. The Veterans Administration is shutting down some offices, and the backlog of claims is growing again.
How much longer will this go on? Will we continue to lurch from one outrage to another, with furious denunciations on social media driving what will be paid for and what won’t? How much longer will the military be used as a convenient punching bag?
Karen Francis is a military spouse and writer in the Washington DC area. She is the military family editor at The Broad Side.
Photograph by Steven Francis Photography, used by permission.