Politics

10.10.13

Death Benefit Scandal Is the Government Shutdown’s Ultimate Insult

The $100,000 payment to the family of a fallen service member—which is supposed to be a first and immediate installment on an unpayable debt—is being withheld in the shutdown. Michael Daly on the outrage.

Three days after the government shut down and two days before he was killed, 19-year-old Marine Lance Cpl. Jeremiah Collins Jr. went on Facebook.

“Get it together Obama and not to mention Congress. Jesus! Make up your minds,” Collins wrote on October 3 from Afghanistan. “I will protect…my country with my life, but do not go fucking with the men and women that protect your sorry asses.”

Collins had enlisted in June 2012 immediately after graduating from Alexander Hamilton High School in Milwaukee. He did so with the knowledge that he would very likely be sent to a war that had begun when he was just 7, a war that was now all but forgotten and already lost.

Once in Afghanistan, he had nonetheless served with notable dedication, and he wrote in September of his sense of duty. He seems to have taken the government shutdown as a kind of betrayal. He suggested in the October 3 post that he might stage his own personal shutdown.

“I am out here in Afghan so I can’t just leave, but I can sit the fuck down and not give two shits,” he wrote.

Two days later, on October 5, Collins was killed in circumstances the Marine Corps described as “while supporting combat operations,” adding only that “this incident is under investigation.” Whatever the cause, whether hostile fire or mishap or anything else, the tragic result was the same.

The pain of Collins’s loss was then compounded by an insult to his memory. The shutdown that had so disgusted him prompted the Defense Department to say it could not authorize payment to his family of the usual $100,000 death benefit. The money is intended to assist with travel to meet the body at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware and to cover funeral expenses.

His mother, Shannon Collins, who called the sight of two Marines in dress uniform appearing at her door “the ugliest vision I could ever see,” counted herself lucky that her employer offered her paid leave. She proved as decent as her son when she wondered aloud how others who were less fortunate would fare. She herself had worries no mother of a fallen American service member should suffer as she consulted with a funeral director.

“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?” she asked herself.

Just before the shutdown, the House of Representatives had passed the Pay Our Military Act to ensure that active service members would continue to get paychecks. Nobody seemed to pay specific attention to the needs of the families should their loved ones be killed in action.

Nobody seemed to pay specific attention to the needs of the families should their loved ones be killed in action.

As it was, the insult to Collins’s family was repeated after four members of a special operations team were killed in Afghanistan on October 6. The dead included 25-year-old Lt. Jennifer Moreno, a certified clinical nurse who had left a completely safe assignment at a medical facility in Fort Lewis, Washington, to volunteer for a Cultural Support team, the only way women can presently serve with special operations in combat. Their gender allows them to question and search Afghan women without violating cultural prohibitions.

On Sunday night, Moreno and her comrades proved once again that courage has no gender as her team set out on a night mission to thwart what was described as a “high value suicide attack” in Kandahar. Moreno no doubt knew that another Cultural Support lieutenant, Ashley White, had been killed by an IED in Kandahar in October 2011.

Moreno’s team had just reached a compound on the outskirts of the city when a man detonated what is believed to have been a suicide vest. Several Americans were hit, and their fellow soldiers were rushing to assist them when a series of buried IEDs went off. Moreno and three others were killed while 30 others were wounded.

“Every night, Rangers are going out on targets that are IED makers, suicide bombers,” says Lt. Col Brian de Santis. “Basically the baddest of the bad guys.”

The difference on the mission that killed Moreno from all the previous missions was the shutdown in Washington. The death benefit that is supposed to be a first and immediate installment on an unpayable debt was denied Moreno’s family in San Diego, along with the families of Sgt. Patrick C. Hawkins, 25, of Carlisle, Pennsylvania; Sgt. Joseph M. Peters, 24, of Springfield, Missouri; and Pfc. Cody J. Patterson, 24, of Philomath, Oregon.

Peters was on his third deployment and was due to return home in two weeks. He leaves a wife and a 20-month-old son. His widow, Ashley, said her husband had always told her that the nation would take care of them if anything happened to him.

“My husband died for his country, and now his family is left to worry,” she told a reporter.

When news of the withheld payments broke, House Speaker John Boehner said “it’s disgusting” and suggested that the Defense Department could have just gone ahead under the existing law, but he pledged to pass a new law specifically to address the benefits. A Defense spokesman said that even in such “heart-rending situations,” the department had been prevented “by law to pay death gratuities.”

A charitable foundation, Fisher House, stepped in to make the payments with the understanding that it would be reimbursed after the shutdown ends, whenever that will be.

Video screenshot

Speaking at The Daily Beast's Hero Summit, philanthropist Arnold Fisher condemned the shutdown, saying, "That's not my America!"

Until then, the shutdown itself constitutes a continuing insult to all true patriots, most particularly to the young Marine who voiced his feelings about it three days before his death.

In an earlier Facebook posting, on September 17, Jeremiah Collins worried about the state of the country he was risking all to defend:

“Nobody tries anymore.

What happened to effort and dedication?

We are all just living just to live, but not really living at all.”

He wrote the following day that after the Marine Corps he hoped to dedicate himself to instilling a spirit of effort and dedication in the young:

“So, I am going to be getting my associates in Health Fitness along with certifications to be a personal trainer, and then possible a bachelors in education (goal being to be a gym teacher).”

On Friday, a memorial ceremony will be held in front of Alexander Hamilton High School, where Collins just might have returned as the kind of gym teacher who can change lives. The American flag will be raised in pride and then lowered in grief.

His mother almost certainly will have the death benefit by then, thanks to a charity, if not the government. The obligation to end the shutdown remains. The national debt that the politicians should be talking about is the one to that young Marine and all the others.