More than two dozen men and women on active military duty have died since… (Steve Ruark, Associated…)
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 died 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 in Afghanistan.
The elder Peters, a soft-spoken union member who lives in Republic, Mo., said he was 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 Delaware 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 soldier leaves behind his wife, Ashley, and his 20-month-old son, Gabriel. He had just been promoted to sergeant in August.
Joseph Peters died two weeks before he was scheduled to return home, according to the Operation Support Ashley and Gabriel Facebook page, which is raising donations and planning an online auction.
"We ask that you join us in remembering her husband, a hero and help raise funds to help Ashley and her son Gabriel, just get by day to day whether it be for food, bills, ect.," the page said, "anything to help with any financial burden that may arise after such a tragic loss."
In a statement released to NBC News, Ashley Peters said her husband "died for his country and now his family is left to worry."
"My husband always said, if something happened to him, we would be taken care of," she said. "I'm a stay-at-home mom, which is what my husband wanted. He wanted me to take care of our son."
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 to 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.
If the Senate fails to act, Republicans would have a harder time claiming credit for restoring the aid to military families.
The flurry of action came after the death of Peters and three other soldiers had focused growing attention on the halt in next-of-kin benefits.
The delay was becoming a major embarrassment for both parties.
A senior administration official said 26 service members had died since the shutdown began Oct. 1, six in Afghanistan and the rest in the United States.
President Obama was "not pleased" to learn that death benefits were not being paid and that grieving families were waiting for their stipends to cover the cost of burials, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said. "The president expects this to be fixed today."
The president and Democratic congressional leaders have been reluctant to pass Band-Aid bills to fix specific shortfalls, but neither wanted to be seen as denying grieving military families their benefits.
"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," Hagel said after traveling to Dover for the somber arrival ceremony of the four soldiers.
House Republicans blamed the Obama administration for the lapse, arguing it had the power to keep paying the death benefits. "This is a disgrace. An intentional policy of pain," said Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), a veteran.
William A. Thien, head of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, called the benefits lapse "disgusting and shameful," adding that the VFW's foundation also would provide financial assistance to families of deceased service members until the shutdown ended.
"It is absolutely appalling and nothing short of a travesty that elected officials continue to receive paychecks and benefits while not providing for those who deserve it most," Thien said.
Brian Bennett and Christi Parsons in the Washington bureau contributed to this report. Cloud reported from Washington, LaGanga from Seattle.