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Military death benefits to resume soon

House unanimous in vote to restore

The House passed a measure unanimously yesterday that would restore death benefits for the survivors of U.S. military personnel after payments were halted by the partial federal shutdown.

The 425-0 vote sends the legislation to the Senate. The Obama administration said the president expected to resolve the issue yesterday.

When most government funding ended Oct. 1 in a standoff between President Obama and House Republicans, the Pentagon stopped paying the $100,000, tax-exempt “death gratuity” that’s intended to provide immediate cash to the survivors of U.S. military personnel.

“Our men and women serving in uniform in dangerous places all over the globe deserve the peace of mind of knowing that, during the worst of times, their families will receive the benefits they deserve immediately,” Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, a Republican from New Jersey and author of the legislation, said yestersday on the House floor. “This bill removes any ambiguity on this point.”

While the measure received bipartisan support, some lawmakers blamed either the Democratic administration or the House Republicans for the lapse in benefits.

Republicans said the Pentagon interpreted too narrowly a previously passed bill authorizing continued pay for military personnel by saying it doesn’t include death benefits. Democrats said allowing the partial government shutdown led to the disruption.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have the legal authority to make those payments” until government funding resumes, Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale told reporters Saturday. He said the September legislation that provided for military personnel to continue receiving their pay lacked provisions authorizing the death benefit.

In addition to the $100,000 death payment, the military has halted benefits for survivors, including burial expenses and travel to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to receive the remains of loved ones, said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a Pentagon spokesman.

While the White House hasn’t issued a statement of administration policy on the measure, White House spokesman Jay Carney yesterday told reporters Obama was “disturbed” to learn that death benefits weren’t being paid because of the shutdown.

“The president expects this to be fixed today,” Carney said, adding that Obama asked the Office of Management and Budget to look into the matter.

While Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel flew to Dover yesterday for the arrival of flag-draped coffins bearing four of the five U.S. service members killed in Afghanistan over the weekend, families wishing to be there had to pay their own way or seek help from outside groups.

The lapse in death benefits is “heart-breaking for all of us,” said Ami Neiberger-Miller, a spokeswoman for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a nonprofit in Arlington, Va., that provides counseling to grieving families of fallen troops. The $100,000 death benefit typically serves as “bridge money” that “you’re able to use to bring your family together.”

The benefit also can be used to pay immediate expenses that are otherwise difficult to cover after the loss of a fallen soldier’s salary, Neiberger-Miller said.

“If your car payment is due in two weeks, this money is really important,” she said.

Shannon Collins, whose son, Marine Lance Cpl. Jeremiah Collins, was killed in Afghanistan over the weekend, said that “the government is hurting the wrong people.”

“Families shouldn’t have to worry about how they’re going to bury their child,” she said in an interview with NBC News. “I don’t necessarily have $10,000 to bury my son.”

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