Grieving military families: The GOP's collateral damage
Let's put a human face on this destructive shutdown. To fully appreciate the havoc being wreaked by the GOP's right-wing radicals, we need only look at how they're screwing with the emotions and pursestrings of grieving military families.
The big problem with ideologues is that they typically dwell in a bubble of their own contrivance, sealed off from the real world. But sooner rather than later, real people wind up getting hurt. And nothing is arguably more hurtful than this:
Five U.S. soldiers - four from the Army, one from the Marines - were killed in Afghanistan over the weekend. In the normal course of events, the Pentagon would've moved to minimize the financial pain suffered by the soldiers' home-front families. A death gratuity of $100,000 would've been wired to each household within 36 hours, to cover funeral costs and the travel costs of meeting the flag-draped coffin. The Army officially says the money is intended to "help the survivors in their readjustment and to aid them in meeting immediate expenses incurred." The money buttresses the families in the short run until their survivor benefits get sorted out.
But because the government is shuttered, these grieving families are getting zip. And the families of 12 other soldiers who have died since the Oct.1 closure - are getting zip.
Yes, this is the kind of thing that happens when zealots are allowed to run rampant.
And just imagine how Republican heads would detonate if the situation were reversed. If Democrats had ever ginned up a shutdown, and had treated grieving military families as collateral damage, the GOP talking point would be resonating through the conservative media echo chamber: "Unpatriotic liberals are against the troops."
Of course, some Republicans say they are shocked, shocked, that the death gratuities have been withheld. Senator Lindsey Graham, whose South Carolina is heavily populated by military families, said yesterday, "Your government has let you down in a time of need. There's no excuse for this." John McCain said yesterday on the Senate floor, "Shouldn't we be embarrassed? Ashamed? What do the American people think when they see that the death benefit for those who served and sacrificed (isn't being paid)? I'm ashamed. I'm embarrassed. All of us should be."
Oh please. What did the Republicans think would happen if they crashed the government? That the shutdown would just be rhetorical fodder for right-wing fundraisers?
How ironic that the support-the-troops party would embarrass itself this way. In the words of Loren Thompson, who writes about national security for Forbes magazine, what we're witnessing "is ideological fervor fed at the expense of America's warfighters."
Hoisting a fig leaf to cover their shame, congressional Republicans now claim that they protected the families last week when they passed an emergency measure - the Pay Our Military Act - exempting our warfighters from the shutdown. Republicans have somehow convinced themselves that their law ensured the uninterrupted payment of death gratuities - even though the law does no such thing. It only appropriates "such sums as are necessary to provide pay and allowances to members of the Armed Forces,” as well as sums to civilians and contractors who are vital to the soldiers' missions.
There isn't a word in that law about the families, or about the death gratuities. Which is why the Pentagon is saying that it lacks "the legal authority to make death gratuity payments at this time."
Which brings us to GOP fig leaf #2. Some Republicans insist that their "intent" was to cover the death payments, and they insist that the Pentagon is reading the law wrong. In a letter to Defense secretary Chuck Hagel, one GOP congressman said, "The intent of Congress was to permit...all payment and allowances to service members." But here's my favorite line: "The department's decision to not make these payments is a matter of choice."
In other words - according to the zealot mentality - it's all Chuck Hagel's fault because Hagel (who was twice wounded as a soldier) has deliberately chosen to hurt the grieving families. Yeah whatever. But no matter how hard Republicans try to shift the blame, they know they've screwed up - as evidenced by the fact that they're currently working on new language (bipartisan language!) to pay the gratuities. As South Carolina congressman Mark Sanford said yesterday, "It's going to be fixed."
And not a moment too soon. Especially on this issue, the destructionist GOP has shamed itself enough.
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