Before the announcement, the families of six service members killed in Afghanistan since the shutdown had not received the usual benefits, including money to travel to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where those killed in war are brought home in flag-draped coffins. Nor is the government able to pay for burials and funerals, as is customary.
“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 Wednesday afternoon.
Hagel, who traveled to Dover to meet the remains of four service members killed last weekend by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, added that Congress had “abdicated” its duties.
Earlier Wednesday, in testimony on Capitol Hill, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki painted a grim picture of the shutdown’s effect on veterans, warning that thousands are waiting longer to have claims resolved and that millions face the prospect of not receiving critical benefit checks in November.
During an appearance before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Shinseki acknowledged that the Veterans Affairs Department had not been well prepared for a government shutdown, saying he had thought it inconceivable.
“This was not one I believed would happen,” said Shinseki, a former Army chief of staff, who, like Hagel, served in Vietnam. “I just didn’t think the august members of this committee or the Congress would allow this to happen.”
Shinseki provided new details about how the shutdown has derailed the department’s efforts to shrink the large backlog of disability claims filed by veterans seeking compensation. The VA secretary said about 1,400 veterans a day are now not receiving decisions on their disability compensation claims because of the end of mandatory overtime, an initiative begun in May.
The backlog had decreased by 31 percent, from 611,000 to 418,500, between March and the end of September. But the number is up by about 2,000 since Oct. 1, when the department stopped paying overtime to claims processors.
“The shutdown directly threatens VA’s ability to eliminate the backlog,” Shinseki said during the packed committee hearing in the Cannon House Office Building. “We’ve lost ground we fought hard to take.”
Shinseki said that if the shutdown is not resolved before the end of the month, VA will run out of money and will not send checks Nov. 1 to 5.18 million beneficiaries.
“It’s not a game,” Shinseki said. “There are veterans and service members, families, children counting on this. . . . Five million of them will be impacted, severely.”