A soldier is “essential” when alive. Not essential when dead?
Is that the official stance of the United States’ Congress and the Pentagon?
Or at least it was until the politically-valuable court of public opinion erupted this week.
On Saturday, a 19-year-old American soldier was killed in Afghanistan. On Sunday, four more were killed there. The federal government — citing the shutdown — refused to pay to transport their bodies to U.S. soil, and delayed payment of death benefits to their families to help pay for funerals.
Ordinarily, the federal government wires $100,000 in death benefits to families within 36 hours of a soldier’s death so the families can plan funerals and take care of other immediate needs.
But for the families of soldiers killed during the shutdown — even though these soldiers were considered essential personnel up until the second of their deaths — no death benefits were to be paid until Congress lifts the shutdown.
That was lawmakers’ stand until Wednesday, when the U.S. House hurriedly voted 425-0 to restore the death benefits. What the Senate will do, and whether President Obama will sign the bill, remains to be seen.
Rather than having the bodies remain in Afghanistan, a number of private citizens and charitable groups, including Lead the Way Fund — founded by Jim Regan whose own son was killed in Afghanistan six years ago — paid to transport the bodies to the Dover Air Force Base where they were greeted by their families early this week.
Their actions are admirable.
The actions of their government?
Lance Cpl. Jeremiah Collins, an intelligence specialist, was stationed in Afghanistan's Helmand province when he was killed Saturday. A high school graduate from Milwaukee, Collins joined the Marine Corps in 2012.
Special Agent Joseph Peters, 1st Lt. Jennifer Moreno, Pfc. Cody Patterson and Sgt. Patrick Hawkins were all killed Sunday in a roadside IED attack by insurgents in the Zhari district in southern Afghanistan.
The 24-year-old Peters, who was from Springfield, Mo., was an Army Criminal Investigation Division special agent. His friend, Ian Tausig told the News-Leader that Peters — who was married and leaves a 20-month-old son — was “good.”
"The only word that I have is good,” Tausig told the newspaper, noting that he and others have donated money to Peters’ widow and will make sure his family is taken care of “until elected officials in the Capitol can get their act together.”
Moreno, a 25-year-old Army nurse from San Diego, was based at the Madigan Army Medical Center in Washington State when she volunteered to join a cultural support team that deployed to Afghanistan in June. It was her first deployment overseas. While alive, according to Army records, she had awarded the Parachutist Badge, Army Achievement Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Global War on Terror Service Medal and Army Service Ribbon. Posthumously, she has been awarded the Combat Action Badge, Bronze Star Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, Purple Heart, Afghanistan Campaign Medal and NATO Medal.
In a press release, Lt. Col. Patrick Ellis, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, Ft. Benning, Ga., described Patterson — who lived in Oregon — as “the poster child for the Ranger Regiment. … He was courageous and dedicated and lost his life while fighting tenaciously against our nation’s enemies alongside his fellow Rangers.” He was 24 years old.
Hawkins — Patterson’s fellow Ranger — was 25 years old and leaves behind a widow in Carlisle, Pa. A soldier who had earned more than a dozen medals and awards since his enlistment in 2010, he was serving his fourth tour in Afghanistan and was killed while attempting to save another soldier.
These five accomplished soldiers each volunteered to serve this country. Our government required them to stay on the job during the shutdown, and they did. And, when they died, we couldn’t come up with the funds to pay for their funerals? Or pay for their families to travel to meet their coffins?
That cannot be this country’s official stand. It does not represent the sentiments of the citizens, so how can it then become the actions of its government?
There’s a lot about the shutdown not to like.
This is an abomination.
This is posturing at its absolute worst.
This is utterly disrespectful to the men and women who we ask to serve this nation.
This disregards all civilized decorum and is just plain wrong.
We cannot, as a nation, tell the families of Lance Cpl. Jeremiah Collins, Special Agent Joseph Peters, 1st Lt. Jennifer Moreno, Pfc. Cody Patterson and Sgt. Patrick Hawkins that they were essential when alive but not essential when dead.
On Wednesday, according to USA Today, during his daily opening prayer in the Senate chamber, Senate Chaplain Barry Black, who is a retired Navy admiral, had some tough words for Congress: “Lord, when our federal shutdown delays payments of death benefits to the families of children dying on far away battlefields, it’s time for our lawmakers to say enough is enough.”
Amen to that.
The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.