'We’ll Take Care of You, If You Don’t Make It Home'

Fisher House has announced it will step in to pay military death benefits during the shutdown, with the Pentagon repaying the organization after the shutdown has ended.
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This story has been updated.

The Fisher House Foundation, an organization long- known for caring for wounded troops and their families, will pay death gratuity benefits for the families of servicemembers killed during the government shutdown – and the Pentagon will back them pay once it’s over.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced the deal on Wednesday after massive public outrage that benefits – including a $100,000 payment to the family within 36 hours of the death notice – would not be paid while the government is shut down.

“Today I am pleased to announce that the Department of Defense is entering into an agreement with the Fisher House Foundation that will allow the federal government to provide the family members of fallen service members with the full set of benefits they have been promised, including a $100,000 death gratuity payment,” Hagel said in a statement released shortly after he and Army Secretary John McHugh traveled to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware for the dignified transfer ceremony for four soldiers who were killed by an IED in Afghanistan on Sunday.

“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. In the days before the shutdown, we warned Congress and the American people that DoD would not have the legal authority to make these payments during a lapse in appropriations. In the days after the shutdown, Departmental lawyers and budget officials pursued every tool and option at our disposal in an effort to provide these benefits. Even under the Pay Our Military Act, we found that we lacked the necessary authority to make payments to the families directly,” Hagel said.

So is Ken Fisher, a New York City real estate developer who runs the Fisher House Foundation. 

Fisher said he saw news reports that the benefits would not get paid during the shutdown and “I started just getting angrier and angrier.” The lapse in benefits became more urgent with five U.S. troops were killed in Afghanistan over the weekend

“We’re still working on how to implement this,” Fisher told Defense One.  He said he’s in touch with Pentagon officials to figure out how to administer the checks. The foundation could give money directly to the families, but there’s an issue of privacy, or give the money to the Defense Department, but there’s uncertainty over whether DoD can process the checks during the shutdown. “At the end of the day if I have to drive it down myself and give it to them,” Fisher said. “This segment of society, when they raise their hand, they give an oath and the oath is to defend this nation, with my life if necessary. But this country also takes an oath, that if you’re wounded, we’ll take care of you, if you don’t make it home, we’ll take care of your family.”

On Tuesday night, Fisher vowed to help the families of the fallen. But he said it was Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who sits on the Armed Services Committee, who urged Fisher to coordinate with the Pentagon. “I can absorb it, but I can’t absorb it indefinitely. I’ll do what I can for as long as I can," he said.

In his statement announcing the deal, Hagel said he warned Congress about the lapse in death benefits. “In the days after the shutdown, departmental lawyers and budget officials pursued every tool and option at our disposal in an effort to provide these benefits.  Even under the Pay Our Military Act, we found that we lacked the necessary authority to make payments to the families directly,” he said. Pentagon Comptroller Bob Hale also mentioned the lapse during a press briefing at the Pentagon before the government shut down. But it wasn’t until troops were killed in Afghanistan that Congress and the White House acted to fix the problem.

The Fisher House Foundation was founded in 1990 and is run by Ken Fisher, a major real estate developer in New York. On Tuesday, he announced that his organization would step in to pay the benefits. “After losing a loved one in service to our nation, these families should not have to endure more pain as the result of political squabbling,” Fisher said in a statement. “For the last 20 years, Fisher House has been there to support our military families in their time of greatest need. We are now stepping up to honor the sacrifices that have been made, and to repay a debt that is truly unpayable.”

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Stephanie Gaskell is associate editor and senior reporter for Defense One

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