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Pentagon warned of cuts to military death benefits days before shutdown

There is growing anger across the country after the government failed to provide fallen military families with a $100,000 they usually receive. Four families who lost loved ones will receive the money from a charity, which the government is promising to pay back when the shutdown is over. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

Lawmakers and the White House have voiced outrage over the shutdown fiasco that has deprived military families of death benefits, but the Pentagon warned of the situation days before the shutdown began.

Under Secretary of Defense Robert Hale advised of the effects a shutdown would have on military personnel and their families during a news conference on Sept. 27.

“We would also be required to do some other bad things to our people. Just some examples – we couldn’t immediately pay death gratuities to those who die on active duty during the lapse,” Hale said.

U.S. Army

Pfc. Cody J. Patterson, Sgt. Patrick C. Hawkins, 1st Lt. Jennifer M. Moreno and Special Agent Joseph M. Peters were killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan on October 6, 2013.

The private foundation Fisher House has agreed to make the payments to the families of service members who have died during the shutdown for now and be reimbursed by the government once Congress gets its act together – a stopgap measure that will get President Barack Obama’s approval, a senior White House official said on Wednesday.

Fisher House stepped into the breach after NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell first reported that the families of service members killed in combat since the shutdown began had not received the $100,000 “death gratuity” that covers funeral expenses and various costs before other survivors benefits kick in.

“They’re grieving. They’ve suffered enough. Why on Earth should they have to worry where their next dollar is coming from?” said Ken Fisher, the chairman of Fisher House.

The warning from the Pentagon came before a bill guaranteeing pay to members of the U.S. military during the shutdown passed Congress and was signed by the president. Some Republicans in Congress have said they thought the legislation also applied to death benefits, but the Pentagon disagreed with that interpretation of the law.

At least 26 active service members have died, including the six killed in Afghanistan, since the government shut down on Oct. 1. None of their families has received the death gratuity.

Another charity, the Tampa-based Special Operations Warrior Foundation, said it will present an additional sum of $20,000 to the members of four Army soldiers killed by an improvised bomb Sunday in Afghanistan.

The father of fallen soldier Pfc. Cody Patterson, 24, of Oregon delivered a direct message to elected representatives in Washington on Tuesday as he prepared to see his son’s body returned in Delaware.

“If Congress were trapped in a car that sunk down in a river, I would swim to the window, and I would look them all in the eye and say, ‘Suck water,’” Randall Patterson said.

Jacquelyn Martin / AP, file

Defense Undersecretary Robert Hale gestures while speaking during a news conference at the Pentagon, Friday, Sept. 27, 2013, about preparations being made in the event of a government shutdown involving the Defense Department.

Lawmakers and the Obama administration were vociferous in their calls for the death benefit snafu to be resolved, as the effects on the families of the fallen soldiers were detailed in a series of NBC News stories.

“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.

The bodies of four troops killed in Afghanistan returned to Dover Air Force Base on Wednesday as the House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill that would have restored the emergency benefits for their families.

“How dare we not provide these grieving families with the necessary support in their time of need!” said Rep. Sanford Bishop, a Democrat from Georgia.

Veterans groups have decried the delay in benefits as a dereliction of Congressional duty, and the impasse has “eroded … quite substantially” trust between retired military members and politicians, Ret. Col. Jack Jacobs, a Medal of Honor recipient and MSNBC analyst, said on TODAY.

While current service members have kept quiet on the issue, “The people who have been in service, the veterans, are speaking out quite dramatically,” Jacobs said.

And the situation could get worse if Congress does not work out its differences soon, endangering compensation checks to 5.1 million veterans, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shineski said at a congressional oversight committee on Wednesday. Those checks are due on Nov. 1.

The payments in jeopardy also include VA checks to 433,000 fully disabled veterans and 360,000 spouses and children of veterans who served during wartime, money meant to help them cover living expenses, Shineski testified.

“So I ask the committee and the rest of Congress to help us by resolving this fiscal impasse now so that VA and our federal partners on whom we have to rely to do our work can get back to work full-time, fulfilling President Lincoln’s call to care for those who have borne the battle,” Shineski said at the hearing Wednesday.

If Congress dallies and the veterans’ payments are not made on Nov. 1, it will be up to lawmakers to decide whether to reimburse them.

“It was not discussed in the hearing and Congress has the responsibility to make that decision, not the executive branch,” VA spokesman Josh Taylor told NBC News in an email on Wednesday.

NBC News’ Tony Dokoupil, Tracy Connor, Erin McClam, Bill Briggs and Vaughn Ververs contributed to this report.