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Hagel: Fisher House will pay for death gratuities

Oct. 9, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Chuck Hagel, John McHugh, Cody J. Patterson
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, center, and Army Secretary John McHugh, right, watch an Army carry team move a transfer case containing the remains of Pfc. Cody J. Patterson on Oct. 9 at Dover Air Force Base, Del. According to the Department of Defense, Patterson, 24, of Philomath, Ore., died Oct. 6, 2013 in Zhari district, Afghanistan of injuries sustained when enemy forces attacked his unit with an improvised explosive device. (Steve Ruark / AP)
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The Pentagon says families of fallen troops will begin receiving the $100,000 death gratuity that was suspended for more than a week due to the government shutdown.

On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the department has forged an agreement with the Fisher House, a private charity organization, to provide payments directly to troops families during the shutdown. When the government resumes routine operations, the Defense Department will reimburse the Fisher House.

“I am offended, outraged, and embarrassed that the government shutdown had prevented the Department of Defense from fulfilling this most sacred responsibility in a timely manner,” Hagel said in a statement announcing the agreement with Fisher House.

“I will continue to work every day to address the very real impact that the government shutdown is having on our people, and I once again call on Congress to fulfill its basic responsibilities and restore funding for the federal government,” Hagel said.

For more than a week, Pentagon officials said the law that Congress passed on Sept. 30 to ensure that troops get paid during the shutdown was worded in such a way that limited payments to troops and did not extend to family members. After the issue drew widespread attention on Capitol Hill, defense officials began aggressively reviewing the matter.

On Wednesday, the House of Representatives voted 425-0 for a resolution to use appropriations money to pay for death and survivor benefits. The Senate will pass the same resolution later Wednesday if it isn‘t resolved, said Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate majority leader.

At least 26 troops have died — including six killed in Afghanistan — since the shutdown began Oct. 1. But their family members did immediately received the lump sum payments that are intended to help cover the immediate costs related to the death, which can include travel to Dover Air Force Base, Del., where caskets of fallen troops ceremoniously are returned from overseas.

Also Wednesday, military officials at Dover Air Force Base transferred the remains of Pfc. Cody Patterson, who was one of four troops killed in Afghanistan Sunday by an improvised explosive device.

Death gratuity benefits are typically provided to the families of all service members who die while on active duty regardless of the cause of death.

One Republican lawmaker criticized the Defense Department for what he called a “careless legal interpretation” and said the payments should be issued under the current laws. California Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Marine reservist who has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Tuesday urging him to read the law’s intent differently.

“The Department’s decision to not make these payments is a matter of choice. And until a correction is made to the law, it is up to you to make the appropriate judgment based on a more correct interpretation. Insisting Congress is needed to fix the situation overstates the complexity of the problem and deflects responsibility,” Hunter wrote.

Troops killed in action whose families will be affected by the suspended death gratuity include Marine Lance Cpl. Jeremiah M. Collins Jr., 19, of Milwaukee, Wis.

Just days before his death, Collins vented his frustration with the government shutdown on his Facebook page.

“I am waiting for the moment they breach my contract. Just waiting, I am out here in Afghan so I can’t just leave, but I can sit the f--- down and not give two s----,” Collins wrote on Oct. 3. “Get it together Obama and not to mention Congress. Jesus! Make up your minds, I will protect the being of my country with my life, but do not go [messing] with the men and women that protect your sorry asses.”

Collins died Oct. 5, and his death remains under investigation.

Four soldiers were killed on Oct. 7 by an improvised explosive device in southern Afghanistan. They included Army First Lt. Jennifer M. Moreno, 25, of San Diego, Sgt. Patrick Hawkins, 25, of Carlisle, Pa.; Sgt. Joseph M. Peters, 24, of Springfield, Mo.; and Pfc. Cody Patterson, 24, of Philomath, Ore., defense officials said.

Defense officials reported a sixth casualty since Oct. 1, but the name of that service member has not been released.

Fisher House is best known for operating homes that offer families of wounded troops a free place to stay near major military hospitals.

Staff writer Rick Maze contributed to this story.

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