Mother of fallen soldier denied death benefits: 'I won't ever understand it'
The shutdown of the federal government is now affecting some families when they are most vulnerable, denying them a $100,000 benefit to help with funeral expenses of loved ones killed while serving the country.
The families of five U.S. service members who died over the weekend in Afghanistan have been notified that they won't be receiving the "death gratuity" normally wired to relatives within 36 hours. The benefit is intended to help cover funeral costs and help with immediate living expenses until survivor benefits typically begin.
The money also helps cover costs to fly families to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to witness the return of their loved ones in flag-draped coffins.
"The government is hurting the wrong people," said Shannon Collins, who lost her son over the weekend in Afghanistan.
"Families shouldn’t have to worry about how they’re going to bury their child," she told NBC News. "Families shouldn’t have to worry about how they're going to feed their family if they don’t go to work this week."
Marine Lance Corporal Jeremiah M. Collins Jr., a 19-year-old from Milwaukee, died Saturday while supporting combat operations in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. He was one of five service members killed in Afghanistan over the weekend, including four troop members who died Sunday in an IED attack.
An autopsy for Collins is underway to determine his cause of death. His mother said she doesn't know when her son's body, now in Dover, will be returned to his family for burial.
"Washington may be shut down, but it's still asking people to go to war,” said Gayle Tzemach Lemmon of the Council on Foreign Relations. “When people realize that they can serve and fight for their country, but that their families will get an I.O.U. until the shutdown is over, I think they're just shocked."
Collins said she feels lucky to have a job and supervisors who will allow her to take paid time off to take care of her son's return. For those who aren't as fortunate, the death gratuity may be critical to their survival and sense of closure.
"While that benefit may not be urgent for me, it’s urgent for somebody. There's somebody who needs to fly their family home. There’s somebody who needs to have expenses covered, or be able to take off work to handle the affairs of their loved one," she said. "And to know that the government shutting down will delay their ability to handle their business, some people just won’t be able to do it.
While, financially,she is able to address her son's return, Collins said she still could use help in paying for his funeral.
"I don't necessarily have $10,000 to bury my son," she said. While she is working with the funeral home to make arrangements, she wondered: "Am I going to be on a payment plan for the rest of my life so that my son can have the services that he deserves?"
A law passed last week to continue paying civilian members of the military during the shutdown, but does not allow for payouts of the death benefit to the families of the fallen, officials told NBC's Andrea Mitchell. Republican aides told NBC news they are currently drafting legislation to address the issue, and that it could be considered as early as Wednesday.
Sen. John McCain was among the many voices criticizing the unexpected side effect of the shutdown on Tuesday, taking to the Senate floor to express his outrage. "Shouldn't we as a body, Republican or Democrat - shouldn't we be ashamed?" he asked. "I'm ashamed! I'm embarrassed. All of us should be."
Collins said the government needs to "re-evaluate and determine the priority" of how it funds government programs during the shutdown.
"For the sacrifice our kids are making, at the age that they’re making them, I don’t understand how this can be a benefit that’s withheld. I won’t ever understand it," she said. “How can we do that to these young men and these young women, who come back having lost their lives? I just really hope that the government really figures this out.”