President Orders Death Benefits Fix, Fisher House Helps Out

President Barack Obama Photo credit: White House

President Barack Obama Photo credit: White House

As a temporary fix, the non-profit organization, The Fisher House, has stepped up and agreed to temporarily pay death benefits to military families of service members killed in action since the government shutdown.

And the Pentagon’s legal department is looking for an immediate way to provide emergency help and death benefits to military families who have had a loved one killed, according to the NPR Two-Way.

After much criticism from Republican lawmakers over the halting of emergency benefits to families of service members killed, press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Wednesday that the president has directed lawyers at the Defense Department and White House budget office to find an immediate legal fix for paying death benefits.

“When [the president] found out that this was not addressed he directed that a solution be found and we expect one today,” Carney said.

NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman says 26 service members have died since the shutdown began, six of them in Afghanistan, but unless the issue is resolved, their families will not receive the $100,000 death benefit owed them.

Four of the service members died in a roadside bomb attack in Afghanistan on Sunday.

Meanwhile, the Military Times is reporting that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has negotiated a deal so families who have been denied a $100,000 death gratuity the past week receive compensation.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the department has forged an agreement with the Fisher House, a private charity organization, to provide payments directly to troops families during the shutdown. When the government resumes routine operations, the Defense Department will reimburse the Fisher House.

“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 in a statement announcing the agreement with Fisher House.

“I will continue to work every day to address the very real impact that the government shutdown is having on our people, and I once again call on Congress to fulfill its basic responsibilities and restore funding for the federal government,” Hagel said.

Many are voicing their frustration with the stalemate including one of the soldiers killed this past week. You can read his Facebook comments in the Military Times report made just days before he was killed in Afghanistan:

Troops killed in action whose families will be affected by the suspended death gratuity include Marine Lance Cpl. Jeremiah M. Collins Jr., 19, of Milwaukee, Wis.

Just days before his death, Collins vented his frustration with the government shutdown on his Facebook page.

“I am waiting for the moment they breach my contract. Just waiting, I am out here in Afghan so I can’t just leave, but I can sit the f— down and not give two s—-,” Collins wrote on Oct. 3. “Get it together Obama and not to mention Congress. Jesus! Make up your minds, I will protect the being of my country with my life, but do not go [messing] with the men and women that protect your sorry asses.”

Collins died Oct. 5, and his death remains under investigation.

Shutdown Denies Military Families Death Benefits

Jose Luis Magana / AP The coffin of Marine Lance Corporal Jeremiah M. Collins Jr. is brought home from Afghanistan.

Jose Luis Magana / AP
The coffin of Marine Lance Corporal Jeremiah M. Collins Jr. is brought home from Afghanistan.

Even though Congress passed legislation last week to continue paying active-duty military, the Pay Our Military Act law did not provide military families money for funeral expenses and immediate costs that hit when a loved one in the military has been killed.

The following is a report from the NBC Today Show:

The shutdown of the federal government is now affecting some families when they are most vulnerable, denying them benefits to help with funeral expenses of loved ones killed while serving the country.

The families of five U.S. service members who were killed over the weekend in Afghanistan have been notified that they won’t be receiving the $100,000 benefit normally wired to relatives within 36 hours of the death. The “death gratuity” 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.

“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.”

You can view the full story from the Today Show.

Six Soldiers Killed in Afghanistan Arrive at Dover AFB

An Army carry team transfers the remains of Spc. Clarence Williams III into a vehicle July 12, 2012 at Dover Air Force Base, Del. (AP Photo/Steve Ruark)

It was pointed out in a comment on my Wednesday blog post that I did not share the names of all six fallen warriors killed Sunday by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. That is because I did not have all the names.

I only learned of the two Tampa Bay area soldiers killed from local reports after the families came forward.

The Department of Defense had not yet officially released the names. That’s not uncommon as it takes time to officially notify all family members.

The official announcement came Thursday afternoon:

The Department of Defense announced today the death of six soldiers who were supporting Operation Enduring Freedom.

They died July 8, of wounds suffered when enemy forces attacked their unit in Maidan Shahr, Wardak province, Afghanistan, with an improvised explosive device.  They were assigned to the 978th Military Police Company, 93rd Military Police Battalion, Fort Bliss, Texas.

Killed were:

Staff Sgt. Ricardo Seija, 31, of Tampa, Fla.,

Spc. Erica P. Alecksen, 21, of Eatonton, Ga.,

Spc. Clarence Williams III, 23, of Brooksville, Fla.,

Pfc. Trevor B. Adkins, 21, of Spring Lake, N.C.,

Pfc. Alejandro J. Pardo, 21, of Porterville, Calif., and

Pfc. Cameron J. Stambaugh, 20, of Spring Grove, Pa.

There are no words that can comfort the families, friends and communities who have lost these men. But, as a community we can permanently note their names and honor their lives and sacrifice.

All six soldiers’ remains were returned Thursday to Dover Air Force Base.

A memorial service for Brooksville soldier Army Spc. Clarence Williams III is planned Tuesday at 5 p.m. at Grace World Outreach Church, 20366 Cortez Boulevard,  Brooksville, FL.

Dover Report: Remains of 9/11 Victims Went into Landfill

Photo courtesy of Military.com.

The lack of command authority and structure at the Dover Port Mortuary led to the mishandling of cremated remains of soldiers and some 9/11 victims according to a report just released.

Former U.S. Central Command head, retired  Gen. John Abizaid led the subcommittee of the Defense Health Board charged with looking into the mishandling of remains at the Dover Air Force Base, Dover Port Mortuary.

Some key findings of the report according to the Stars and Stripes:

Among the initial findings: body parts packaged in plastic bags were mislabeled and lost; cremated remains were thrown in a Virginia landfill; and one fallen Marine’s mangled arm was sawed off, without family notification, so the body would fit in the casket.

Background information provided with the subcommittee’s report indicated that unidentifiable remains from the 9/11 Pentagon attack and the crash site in Shanksville, Pa., were cremated, sealed in containers and given to a biomedical waste disposal contractor. The contractor incinerated those containers and dumped the residual material in a landfill, according to the report.

The Wall Street Journal reports there are few specifics in the final report on the mishandling of the 9/11 victims cremated remains:

Detailing a series of previously undisclosed errors at the Delaware military mortuary, investigators for the Defense Health Policy Board found a 2002 memo that revealed portions of seven bodies of people killed Sept. 11 in Shanksville, Pa., and in the attack on the Pentagon couldn’t be identified and were then cremated and given to a contractor that deposited the remains in a landfill.

Abizaid and committee members made 20 recommendations. Military.com reports:

His report calls for upgrading the commander of the mortuary units from a colonel to a two-star general; giving the commander more authority to investigate and prosecute; and subjecting the mortuary units to regular inspections. Abizaid’s panel also calls for a “board of visitors” to oversee the mortuary units and report to the Defense Health Board.

In his media briefing, Abizaid said, “This is not just and Air Force problem. This is a Department of Defense issue. There were policy issues that weren’t clear.”

“We need to understand that this is a 100 percent no-fail mission,” Abizaid said. “And that means the same level of care needs to be taken with regard to the final place of our fallen that we do in safeguarding our nuclear munitions.”

Transcripts of the news briefing are available HERE.

Dover Dumped Hundreds of Soldiers’ Remains in Landfill

June 8, 2011: The coffins of four U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq arrive at Dover Air Force Base. PHOTO CREDIT: Jose Luis Magana/AP

The remains of more than 6,300 troops have passed through the Dover Air Force Base Mortuary since 2001 according to a story in the Washington Post.

The Air Force dumped the incinerated partial remains of at least 274 American troops in a Virginia landfill, far more than the military had acknowledged, before halting the secretive practice three years ago, records show.

The landfill dumping was concealed from families who had authorized the military to dispose of the remains in a dignified and respectful manner, Air Force officials said. There are no plans, they said, to alert those families now.

You can read the full Washington Post story by and HERE.

However, Whitlock told NPR’s Morning Edition Thursday that there may be more cases because the practice has gone on for years, only ending in 2008.

As Whitlock said, troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have been involved in combat where “a lot of people are killed by bombs or die in explosions” that shatter bodies. “In many cases,” he said, “what happens is the morgue at Dover isn’t able to identify all the remains until after a funeral or until a body is returned to a family” — meaning that some body parts have remained behind at the morgue.

“What happened in these cases,” Whitlock said, “is the families had signed paperwork asking the military to dispose of these subsequent remains in a dignified manner. … The Air Force would have them cremated … and then have the ashes taken to a landfill. The families were never told about this.”

Some remains that were never identified were also disposed of in the landfill.

Dover Mortuary: Panetta Sets Up Independent Review

Sec. of Defense Leon Panetta. Photo courtesy of the Dept. of Defense website.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has called for two reviews into reports of U.S. Forces remains returned from Iraq and Afghanistan being mishandled and cases mismanaged at the Dover Air Base mortuary.

Panetta learned of the problems at the Dover Mortuary shortly after taking office in July. The secretary has directed an independent review of the situation. (American Forces Press Service)

He also wants a review of a report on the mortuary by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel with attention to possible management reprisals against Dover Mortuary employees who reported the irregularities.

The details of mismanagement at the Dover Mortuary are wrenching especially for the families of the fallen like Marine Sgt. Daniel M. Angus, 28, who had been blown apart by a bomb in Afghanistan. His parents live in Thonotosassa, Florida. A Washington Post article details his case:

The military, it turned out, had kept a painful secret. Before the funeral, while embalmers were preparing what was left of Angus’s shattered body at the Dover Air Force Base mortuary, they had trouble fitting him into a dress uniform. The heat of the explosion had fused his upper left arm bone at an awkward angle. Without asking his parents’ permission, the embalmers sawed it off, pinning a sleeve over the stump.

You can read the full story by Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post  HERE.

Panetta’s independent panel named to investigate the Dover Mortuary current operations and procedures:

  • Dr. Richard Carmona, a former U.S. Surgeon General
  • Retired Army Gen. Fred Franks, a member of DOD’s health board
  • Ruth Stonecifer, representative of families supported by the Dover Port Mortuary
  • Congressman Vic Snyder, a doctor and former Democratic U.S. representative from Arkansas
  • Garold Huey, a funeral director and embalmer who served in the Navy as enlisted member-embalming technician
  • Jacquelyn Taylor, executive director of the New England Institute and an internationally recognized leader in funeral service education
  • Dr. Bruce Parks, a forensic pathologist.

Children of Fallen Special Forces Offered Free College

The remains of the 30 Special Operations forces killed this weekend in Afghanistan came home to the U.S. Tuesday.  Their families, fellow service members and President Barack Obama were at Dover Air Force Base to pay tribute to the fallen.

In the next few months, the Tampa based Special Operations Warrior Foundation will also offer its help – a free college education for the children of those killed.

The Special Operations Warrior Foundation was founded in 1980 by fellow warriors who wanted to make sure the children of special forces killed in training or action could go to college.

Melinda Petrignani was 8 months old when her father, an Army Ranger, was killed. The Warrior Foundation helped her graduate from DePaul University in 2008. Petrignani said they provided more than financial assistance.

“We’re an extended family to all these children,” said Petrignani who started working for the organization about a year ago. “I’m there as a mentor to them, as a friend, as someone they can talk to when they might not be able to talk to their parents.”

So far, nearly 200 children have graduated, about 140 are in college and there are commitments by the Special Forces Warriors Foundation to 600 more children who are not yet college age.

And that same offer will be made to the children of those just lost. You can learn more about the four-star rated charity SpecialOps.org.

You can listen to Melinda tell her story and talk about her work at the foundation  HERE – Melinda talks with WUSF 89.7FM .

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