As the threat of a federal government shutdown rises, Gold Star families could be among those who pay the price.
During a shutdown, a death benefit program for servicemembers that includes an immediate $100,000 payment to each military family could come to a halt. Other payments also could stop in a shutdown: funds that cover funeral, burial and related travel expenses as well as a temporary housing allowance in cases involving active-duty servicemembers.
It happened four years ago. A government shutdown stopped payments for the families. In October 2013, the families of four soldiers who were killed in combat in Afghanistan didn’t see the death benefits for days, forcing them to alter plans to meet the bodies of their slain relatives at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
Such incidents triggered an angry backlash from the military and their supporters as well as congressional promises to rectify the concern. But there’s been no legislation since to fix it, and as a result, supporters of Gold Star families are worried about a repeat of such ordeals.
“Having been in the middle of this during the last shutdown, it’s another way we keep slapping these people in the face,” said Ken Fisher, chairman and CEO of his family’s nonprofit, the Fisher House Foundation. “These death benefits and gratuities should be safeguarded during political squabbles and disagreements. Haven’t these families been through enough?”
During the 16-day shutdown of 2013, an estimated 30 families lost relatives serving in the military and were impacted by the gap in coverage. Since that time, legislation to make the payments permanent and immune to Capitol Hill funding fights has failed to gain much traction.
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., has sponsored the legislation, the Families of Fallen Servicemembers First Act, during every congressional term since the 2013 shutdown, but bill has languished in the committee stage. Each year, however, the plan has grown in support, going from 8 cosponsors in 2013 to 108 this year.
“What happened during the 2013 shutdown was shameful and must never happen again,” Connolly said in a statement. “We must never again fail to uphold our sacred compact with grieving military families. With the near quarterly threats of a government shutdown, enacting the Families of Fallen Servicemembers First Act is more important than ever.”
One challenge potentially hurting the bill’s success could be a cost estimate. In 2013, the Congressional Budget Office, which evaluates and estimates the cost of legislation, gave a similar plan a $150 million price tag.
Supporters of a permanent fix have said the estimate is too high, and seems to assume the government would remain in shutdown mode in perpetuity, said Keith Humphrey of Kansas, a Navy veteran and father-in-law to a fallen Marine Corps servicemember. Humphrey’s family received their benefit immediately, but he was angered when he heard of the 2013 cases and it inspired him to get involved.
Humphrey has made it his life mission to rectify the gap in coverage. He said he has sent out thousands of emails since 2013 to state and federal lawmakers, among others, pushing for the legislation.
While the shutdown doesn’t impact insurance-related death payments – such as ones from the Servicemember’s Group Life Insurance program – those funds can take weeks to reach families, Humphrey said, making a timely death benefit crucial.
“What crushed me during the shutdown was knowing those families weren’t getting money,” said Humphrey, who twice ran unsuccessfully for the Kansas state senate. “Some had to wait to bury their kid.”
In November 2009, Humphrey lost his son-in-law, Marine Corps Sgt. Michael Martins, who was killed in a motorcycle crash near his base at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego.
Within two days, Humphrey’s daughter received the $100,000 payment, which helped ease some of the initial panic of planning her husband’s funeral, among other demands. She was also able to use the money to fly Martins’ friends from his unit to the funeral.
“You’ve got a lot of things you’ve got to do quick,” Humphrey said. “Your breadwinner is gone. The last thing you want to do is worry how you are going to pay for stuff.”
In Kansas, Humphrey saw quick success, where the state in 2013 enacted a law to cover such benefits when the federal government can’t during a shutdown.
He’s since pushed for the federal government to follow suit. This year, Humphrey has helped Connolly’s legislation reach 108 cosponsors – about one-quarter of the House.
“I don’t want to give up. I’m still pushing to make something happen, to make a change,” said Humphrey, who still wears a copy of Martins’ dog tags. “After Mike died, I wanted to turn it into some positive effect. It was a life-changing event. I have to find a way to reverse the grief.”
More than halfway through the October 2013 shutdown, the Pentagon had struck a deal with Fisher House to provide the benefits to families of the fallen as a contractor.
“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,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement at the time. “In the days before the shutdown, we warned Congress and the American people that DOD would not have the legal authority to make these payments during a lapse in appropriations.”
In the end, the Fisher House issued payments of $25,000 to about 30 Gold Star families who lost members of the military in combat, training or other incidents during the shutdown, Fisher said.
The nonprofit, which provides temporary housing all over the world for military families in need, such as people with a servicemember who is hospitalized, raised a large portion of that money privately.
“We have to learn from our mistakes. Too often history repeats itself and we need to make sure that is not the case,” Fisher said. “It’s not just about making sure the death benefits are paid, it’s honoring the sacrifices these people have made.”
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