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Wednesday
Oct092013

Pentagon, Congress Vow to Restore Military Death Benefits

iStock/Thinkstock(DOVER, Del.) -- The Pentagon and lawmakers on Capitol Hill pledged to restore promptly the military death benefits that the government shutdown has cut off from families, as the remains of four U.S. soldiers arrived Wednesday at Dover Air Force Base.

The shutdown has put a stop to the $100,000 check military families receive when a loved one dies in uniform, the result of the more than week-old standoff in Washington that members of both parties and President Obama have denounced.

"It's just hard to think they're going to have to go through this time and have one more thing to worry about," said Cheryl Walsh, a Gold Star mom from San Jose, Calif., who lost her 21-year-old son Sean Walsh two years ago in Afghanistan and received the death gratuity.

She used the funds to travel to Dover to witness his return, she told ABC News station KGO-TV in San Francisco. "And that is one of the most dignified ceremonies," Walsh said, choking up as tears streamed down her face. "And to miss that, it's hurtful and it's heartbreaking."

The number of families not receiving the death benefit has risen to 26 since the beginning of the shutdown Oct. 1, including the families of service members who died in Afghanistan.

The president was "very disturbed" to learn that the Department of Defense is unable to pay the death benefits and expects the issue to be "fixed today," the White House said.

"He was not pleased to learn of this problem," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters Wednesday. "And he has directed the OMB [Office of Management and Budget] and his lawyers to find a solution. And he expects to have one today."

Responding to the president's call, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Wednesday said the death gratuity would be restored, thanks to funds from a private foundation.

"Today, I am pleased to announce that the Department of Defense is entering into an agreement with the Fisher House Foundation that will allow the federal government to provide the family members of fallen service members with the full set of benefits they have been promised, including a $100,000 death gratuity payment," Hagel said in a statement.

"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."

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, the House voted unanimously to restore the death gratuity to families of the fallen. The vote passed 425-0 with 228 Republicans and 197 Democrats supporting it.

The measure, known as the Honoring the Families of Fallen Soldiers Act, would make continuing appropriations for death gratuities and related survivor benefits for survivors of deceased military service members of the Department of Defense for fiscal year 2014.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also pledged Wednesday to restore the death benefit.

"They are going to be restored, without any question," he said.

The Senate has rejected multiple House measures to fund specific agencies or programs on a piecemeal basis, but Reid's statement indicates Senate Democrats might be willing to agree to a House bill to restore the death benefits.

House Speaker John Boehner Tuesday called the pause in death benefits "disgraceful."

"The House is going to act specifically on this and I hope the president will sign it," he said.

Meanwhile, in Dover, Hagel and Secretary of the Army Gen. Ray Odierno attended the near-silent ceremony at the Air Force base as the flag-draped coffins of the four service members killed in Afghanistan were removed from a military plane.

And around the country, family members of U.S. soldiers are sharing their thoughts about the importance of the Pentagon's death gratuity and expressing their outrage that other families have not received the same benefit, which is supposed to be paid within three days of a soldiers' death, during the shutdown. Bernice Koprince of Knoxville, Tenn., lost her son, Marine Lance Cpl. William Korpince Jr., 24, in Iraq seven years ago. "It's a day you never ever forget," she told ABC News affiliate WATE-TV.

The military's death benefit payments helped alleviate unanticipated financial stress at the time of his death, she said. "You have these things that you have to take care of that you really never ever thought you'd have to take care of and now you've got this extra level of, 'My gosh, how am I supposed to pay for any of this?'" she said. "I'm not sure where the government thinks they've [the families] got the funds sitting aside to give their soldier or Marine the funeral that they deserve," she said.

The shutdown has not interrupted other benefits paid to the families of dead military service members, including $400,000 life insurance payments; the Survivor Benefit Program, a monthly stipend based on the deceased's base duty pay that is paid by the Treasury out of a retirement fund; and the Special Survivors Indemnity Allowance, which is payable to the surviving spouse of active-duty service members whose survivor benefit is offset by Veterans Administration dependency and indemnity compensation.

U.S. Senate Chaplain Barry Black, a retired rear admiral in the Navy, used his daily prayer Tuesday to address the issue.

"Lord, when our federal shutdown delays payments of death benefits to the families of children dying on far-away battlefields, it's time for our lawmakers to say enough is enough," Black prayed.

"Cover our shame with the robe of your righteousness. Forgive us, reform us, and make us whole."

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio