Death Benefits Denied to Families of Fallen Troops

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UPDATE: The U.S. Defense Department has restored death benefits to families of troops killed in Afghanistan after the payments were suspended because of the government shutdown. The Pentagon partnered with the Fisher House Foundation to resume the benefits, including a $100,000 death gratuity payment. Read more here.

The families of four soldiers and one Marine killed in Afghanistan over the weekend have been told that they will be denied death benefits while the government shutdown continues, leaving at least one mother in despair and disbelief.

The families will also be denied travel re-imbursement should they choose to go to Dover Air Force Base, Del., for the solemn return of the caskets of their loved ones, Pentagon officials said Tuesday.

"For the sacrifice our kids are making, at the age that they're making them, I don't understand how this can be a benefit that's withheld. I won't ever understand it," Shannon Collins, the mother of 19-year-old Marine Lance Cpl. Jeremiah M. Collins, told NBC News.

"Families shouldn't have to worry about how they're going to bury their child," Shannon Collins said. "The government is hurting the wrong people."

Pentagon officials said that the "Pay Our Military Act," passed by Congress just before the government shutdown began on Oct. 1, provided for the basic pay of the military during the political impasse, but did not allow for the payment of death benefits.

"Unfortunately, as a result of the shutdown, we do not have the legal authority to make death gratuity payments at this time," said Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a Pentagon spokesman. "However, we are keeping a close eye on those survivors who have lost loved ones [to make the payments once the shutdown ends]," Christensen said.

Lance Cpl. Collins, of Milwaukee, Wis., was killed last Saturday in an incident in southewestern Helmand province in Afghanistan. Collins was an intelligence analyst assigned to Combat Logistics Regiment 2, 2nd Marine Logistics Group, II Marine Expeditionary Force, based in Camp Lejeune, N.C.

In a separate incident on Sunday, four Army troops were killed by an improvised expolsive device as they entered a building in the Zhari district of southern Kandahar province.

The Defense Department identified them as 1st Lt. Jennifer M. Moreno, 25, of San Diego, Calif., assigned to Madigan Army Medical Center, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.; Sgt. Patrick C. Hawkins, 25, of Carlisle, Pa., assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, Fort Benning, Ga.; Sgt. Joseph M. Peters, 24, of Springfield, Mo., assigned to the 5th Military Police Battalion, Vicenza, Italy; and PFC Cody J. Patterson, 24, of Philomath, Ore., assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, at Fort Benning, Ga.

The failure to pay death benefits to the family has spread anger in the commands of the fallen troops.

"We're working through that issue now," said Chris Grey, a spokesman for the Army's Criminal Investigation Diviison, when asked whether the command was looking to find a way around the legal proscriptions to help the family of Peters, who reported to CID.

"One way or another, that family is going to be taken care of -- if we have to pass the hat," Grey said.

At Fort Benning, Ga., Hawkins was recalled as "a brave and incredibly talented Ranger" by Lt. Col. Patrick J. Ellis, commander of 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment.

Hawkins "was moving to the aid of a wounded Ranger (PFC Patterson) when he was killed," Ellis said in a statement. "His actions that night were in keeping with the epitome of the Ranger Creed: 'I will never leave a fallen comrade.'"

"We've had a number of people die recently and we will be able to pay them, but not until the lapse of appropriation ends," said Pentagon Comptroller Bob Hale during a call with reporters where he announced Saturday that most furloughed civilian DoD workers were being recalled,

"We're trying to be helpful through aid societies and others to the family members who are involved in these tragic circumstances," Hale said, but the death gratuity of $100,000 would have to be withheld. "Unfortunately, we don't have the legal authority to make those payments."

The government shutdown started on Oct. 1 after Congress failed to pass a budget or a continuing resolution to fund the government in fiscal year 2014. Despite their failures, lawmakers railed against those across the aisle for not allowing death benefits be paid to the families of troops who have died.

"This particular situation is unthinkable," Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C., said. "A great injustice is being done to our service members and their families."

Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., said Tuesday in a statement that Congress expected death benefits to fall under the Pay Our Military Act.  He said his committee would act immediately to ensure they are paid. However, at press time no legislation had been passed to do so.

"We can never let the welfare of our troops and their families become pawns in a political contest.  If the Pentagon believes they need more explicit authority to disburse these payments, I am sure the House will provide it in very short order," McKeon said in a statement.

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