WASHINGTON — Not long after the flag-draped coffins of four Americans killed in combat arrived Wednesday at Delaware’s Dover Air Force Base, the Pentagon announced that a private charity would restore death benefits for the families of military members who die while on active duty.
But that quick action did little to calm the families’ ire and stop the finger-pointing between the Obama administration and Republicans about a government failure whose effect was deeply symbolic and immediately felt by bereft parents, grieving spouses and children left without mothers and fathers.
More than two dozen men and women on active military duty have died since the federal shutdown began Oct. 1. The $100,000 in so-called death gratuities paid to their survivors within 36 hours was one of many key programs placed on hold because of the stalemate in Washington.
Retired sheet metal worker Jerry Peters, 71, lost his step-grandson Sunday when an improvised explosive device went off during combat operations, killing Army Special Agent Joseph M. Peters, 24, and three others in Kandahar province, Afghanistan.
The elder Peters, a soft-spoken union member who lives in Republic, Mo., said he is furious about the shutdown and its effect on his family. It’s bad enough to have lost his grandson, “a very gentle and good man,” he said, but this final indignity is all about politics.
“I assume they will get this straightened out in Washington, but I don’t know,” said Peters, who stayed in Missouri while other family members went to Dover to claim the young man’s body. “It’s a hardship, but everything is anymore. … I blame the Republicans and the (tea party). I blame them for that.”
The young military policeman leaves behind his wife, Ashley, and his 20-month-old son, Gabriel. He had just been promoted to sergeant in August.
In a surprise move, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that the Pentagon had reached an agreement with Fisher House Foundation, a nonprofit charity that assists military families, to begin paying the survivor benefits until the government can resume them. The foundation will be repaid after the stalemate ends.
Hagel’s announcement came slightly more than an hour after the House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill, 425-0, to restore the benefits and sent it to the Senate. It appeared, however, that the Democratic-controlled Senate might not act on the bill after the Pentagon moved to pay the benefits through the private foundation.