(Photo: Reuters/Tim Shaffer)
On the ninth day of the federal government shut down Wednesday, Senate Chaplain Barry Black delivered a strong-worded prayer urging Congress to respond to reports that families of fallen military service members were not receiving death benefits during the ongoing shut down.
"Lord, when our federal shutdown delays payments of death benefits to the families of children dying on faraway battlefields, it's time for our lawmakers to say 'enough is enough'," Black, formerly the Chief of Chaplains for the U.S. Navy, said at Wednesday's prayer. "Cover our shame with the robe of your righteousness. Forgive us, reform us and make us whole."
Although the theme of Black's prayers are usually apolitical, since the federal shut down last week they have taken on a decidedly political tone, praying for members of Congress to compromise on a solution so the federal government can begin to function again.
Prior to Black's prayer, several media outlets ran stories indicating that military families who had lost loved ones were not receiving a $100,000 death benefit or being reimbursed for burial expenses due to the government shut down. The reports sparked outrage both on Capitol Hill and beyond, so much so that Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) stood up directly after Black to echo the chaplain's words, telling the Senate: "What Dr. Black said to all of us this morning, all of those who believe that a government shutdown is just another political gambit, what he said, we should remember, and his words were direct and simple."
News regarding the military death benefits struck such a chord on Capitol Hill that the House unanimously voted 425-0 to reinstate the benefits. The $100,000 payment reportedly arrives to the grieving family within days of the soldier's death and covers the gap between military salary and survivor benefits.
Although the House did vote to reinstate the benefits, a vote in Senate on the issue remained unclear as of Wednesday late afternoon, and therefore the Pentagon reached a deal with the nonprofit Fisher House Foundation, that primarily builds family residences at military hospitals, to provide an advanced grant to the families until the government can make up the payments.
"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," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement following the news. Hagel traveled to Dover Air Force Base, Del. on Wednesday to witness four deceased soldiers from Afghanistan return to American soil in caskets draped with American flags.
Wednesday marks the ninth day of the federal shutdown due to the inability of Congress to reach a budget agreement over the Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare." Hundreds of thousands of government employees have been furloughed due to the shutdown, and the Veterans Affairs Department has already furloughed more than 7,800 employees, according to CBS News.
The Veterans Affairs Department also announced this week that if the shut down doesn't end soon, it may not be able to distribute checks to 5.18 million military beneficiaries by its November 1 deadline; that would amount to a loss in $6.25 billion in payments that Veterans Affairs beneficiaries are expecting.