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Pentagon freezes death benefits for fallen soldiers' families

  • Shown here is Sgt. Patrick C. Hawkins.Department of Defense

  • Shown here is 1st Lt. Jennifer M. Moreno.Department of Defense

  • Shown here is Pfc. Cody J. Patterson.Department of Defense

  • Shown here is Special Agent Joseph M. Peters.Department of Defense

It's another ugly symptom of the partial government shutdown -- and this time it impacts the families of soldiers who are dying for their country. 

The Pentagon confirmed Tuesday that, as long as the budget impasse lasts, it will not be able to pay death benefits to the families of troops who've been killed in combat. 

"Unfortunately, as a result of the shutdown, we do not have the legal authority to make death gratuity payments at this time," said Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a Defense Department spokesman. "However, we are keeping a close eye on those survivors who have lost loved ones serving in the Department of Defense." 

House lawmakers, though, are planning to vote Wednesday on a bill to restore funding for the payments. And Speaker John Boehner on Tuesday accused the Obama administration of needlessly withholding the money. 

Boehner claimed a bill passed by Congress and signed by the president last week to pay America's troops should have given the Pentagon the latitude "to pay all kinds of bills, including this." 

"I think it's disgraceful that they're withholding these benefits," Boehner said, urging Obama to sign the bill that the House will take up on Wednesday. 

The bill would still have to pass the Senate before arriving on Obama's desk. If that bill fails to pass, the Pentagon says, families will be reimbursed once Congress passes an appropriations bill. 

The Pentagon says it has specific instructions from its budget office not to make payments for deaths that occurred after 11:59 p.m. on Sept. 30, 2013. 

Over the weekend, four soldiers -- two of them Army Rangers -- and one Marine were killed while conducting combat operations in Afghanistan. The bodies of the four soldiers will be returned to Dover Air Force Base on Wednesday. 

Due to the impasse, the families of 25-year-old 1st Lt. Jennifer M. Moreno; 24-year-old Pfc. Cody J. Patterson; 24-year-old Special Agent Joseph M. Peters; 25-year-old Sgt. Patrick C. Hawkins; and 19-year-old Lance Cpl. Jeremiah M. Collins, Jr. will not receive the $100,000 payment that they would have otherwise received within three days of the death. 

Adding further insult, the families will have to pay for their own travel to Dover. That's a bill the Pentagon also says it can't pay because of the partial shutdown. 

Privately, Defense Department officials say they wish they could pay the families and they admit it's a disgrace that deserves national attention. 

"If the department was allowed to make death gratuity payments at any point during shutdown, they would've been paid with great relief," one official said.   

Pentagon officials also say Congress was warned prior to the shutdown that these benefits would be stopped. 

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said during a press conference on Tuesday he would tell those families that their government "let them down." 

After the ceremony at Dover on Wednesday, the families will fly to their home states to conduct private funerals. That's also an expense the Pentagon says it can no longer pay due to the stalemate.

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