WASHINGTON D.C. – Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on Tuesday said it was “inexcusable” for the Obama administration to refuse to pay death benefits to families of the five soldiers who died in Afghanistan over the weekend.
“I just can’t imagine a decision-making process that would produce those outcomes,” Rumsfeld, who served as Secretary of Defense under Presidents Gerald Ford and George W. Bush, told Fox News’ “On the Record.”
“It’s so unfair — to the families, to the veterans, to the soldiers.”
He told host Greta Van Susteren that the White House was “clearly picking and choosing what they want to do. They’re making decisions that clearly fit their political agenda.”
The government shutdown has stopped families of fallen soldiers from receiving a $100,000 death benefit.
Shannon Collins lost her 19-year-old son to the war over the weekend. Marine Lance Cpl. Jeremiah Collins Jr. died Saturday while supporting combat missions in Afghanistan.
In total, the loved ones of five military members slain over the weekend will be denied the benefit because of the shutdown, The Washington Times reported.
After her son’s death, Collins got a letter from the government saying the $100,000 death benefit typically issued within 36 hours of a soldier’s death wasn’t coming.
“The government is hurting the wrong people,” she told NBC’s Today Show.
“Families shouldn’t have to worry about how they’re going to bury their child,” she said. “Families shouldn’t have to worry about how they’re going to feed their family if they don’t go to work this week.”
The one-time lump sum of money is meant to help families with funeral expenses and offer financial support to the family until survivor benefits begin.
Across conservative circles, Rumsfeld and others voiced disgust with the refusal to the families.
Lt. Col. Oliver North called it “unconscionable.”
“This isn’t about the government shutdown,” he told Fox News Channel’s “The Kelly File” on Tuesday. “It’s about whether the commander-in-chief gives a damn about the morale of our troops.”
An act of Congress is not required to authorize payments to families of the dead and wounded, North said.
“All it takes is a commander-in-chief with a conscience, because the chief executive of the United States can do it with the stroke of a pen on a presidential emergency action document.”
“Impacting grieving families when they are at their absolute weakest point is just disgusting,” said Joe Davis, a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the largest organization of combat veterans in the United States.
“Veterans, military personnel, and now their families are not to be used as leverage in this political game of blame,” he said.
The Department of Defense says it is aware of the problem.
“The department does not currently have the authority to pay death gratuities for the survivors of service members killed in action – typically a cash payment of $100,000 paid within three days of the death of a service member,” a Pentagon news release said.
“Secretary [of Defense Chuck] Hagel assured the service leaders that he would work closely with them to address these challenges and support the service members and families impacted by these disruptions,” the release said.
But one foreign relations official was shocked by the lapse.
“On the anniversary of America’s longest war, in Afghanistan, a battle that barely brushes against most Americans’ lives, soldiers heading into the fight face greater uncertainty than ever before,” Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote on the website Defense One on Monday.
“That includes the central question of what happens to their families if they don’t make it home.”
The death benefit is considered only transition aid until the military’s survivor benefits begin, but Lemmon said the shutdown is even threatening that obligation.
“[If] the shutdown continues into November, monthly survivor benefits are in jeopardy because the Department of Veterans Affairs has warned it will be out of cash to pay them,” she wrote.
“Never before has America faced a government at war and a government shutdown at the same time. Even if much of America forgets the former while enduring the latter, the grim truth of these dueling realities is that they should not coexist given Washington’s central role in prosecuting America’s conflicts.”
Pentagon Comptroller Bob Hale was distraught over the situation, The Hill reported.
“We have some heart-rending situations that we are not allowed, by law, to pay death gratuities,” Hale told reporters last week, adding the “Pay Our Military Act” did not change the situation.
“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,” Hale said.
Besides the Marine’s death Saturday, four other military members were killed Sunday by an IED in southern Afghanistan, Lemmon said.
Republican lawmakers such as Rep. Duncan Hunter of California say a bill passed right before the shutdown to keep military pay intact should include death benefits.
“The Department of Defense, through a careless legal interpretation, is now mistakenly denying payments of death gratuity and other benefits to the families of those who make the ultimate sacrifice,” Hunter told The Hill.
“Since DoD has determined that it cannot provide this benefit, I am at a loss about why DoD did not take a more active role in notifying Congress and insisting that changes in law occur immediately,” Hunter said.
House GOP aides said new legislation is now being drafted to specifically fund the death benefits during the shutdown, and one aide said it could be on the House floor as soon as Wednesday, The Hill reported.
Meanwhile, the shutdown also was affecting veterans’ services.
The Department of Veterans Affairs on Tuesday furloughed 7,000 workers who process compensation claims, USA Today reported.
As a result, the VA cut off public access to all 56 regional offices where veterans routinely walk in to file claims for compensation of combat- or other service-related wounds, injuries or illnesses.