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Editorial: Exploitation of soldiers and veterans in shutdown fight is shameful

While Republicans must shoulder the blame for the destructive federal shutdown, both sides are playing politics with those in the crossfire. Soldiers and veterans are arguably being exploited the worst.

Wednesday, the White House and members of Congress in both parties were falling over themselves to express concern and make sure that the loved ones of troops killed in action receive death benefits. The House passed legislation on a 425-0 vote, President Barack Obama pledged to find an immediate legal fix and the Pentagon announced help from a nonprofit group.

The families of more than two dozen service members who have died since the shutdown began last week haven’t received the usual $100,000 in immediate cash to cover funeral and other expenses. The Pentagon said Congress hadn’t given it the authority to pay survivor benefits, only pay and allowances for troops. Those left in the lurch include loved ones of four soldiers killed Sunday in Afghanistan – two Army Rangers, an Army criminal investigator and 1st Lt. Jennifer M. Moreno, 25, an Army nurse from San Diego.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who said he was “offended, outraged and embarrassed,” made sure to be at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware on Wednesday when the bodies of those four soldiers returned home. It’s a solemn ceremony that is rarely shown in public, but in the shutdown gamesmanship it was another photo opportunity.

Last week, Democrats and Republicans rushed to the cameras at the National World War II Memorial to greet veterans – some in wheelchairs – who went around barricades at the officially closed site.

You can’t blame advocacy groups for being appalled.

“Veterans are hurting and are tired of being used as political chew toys,” says Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “There’s no worse example of how Washington politics is hurting military families than the denial of benefits to families whose son or daughter died in uniform,” he added in a statement.

The impact on veterans – and the political pandering – is only going to get more painful.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki told a congressional committee Wednesday that if the shutdown continues, about 3.8 million veterans will not receive their disability benefits in November, and pension payments would stop for 315,000 veterans and for 202,000 surviving spouses and children. The unconscionable backlog of claims for disability benefits is growing again because of employee furloughs.

While those who have fought for our country certainly deserve better than this shoddy treatment, so do all Americans at the mercy of bickering politicians.

You’d hope this sad spectacle would shame our elected leaders in Washington into ending the shutdown. As U.S. Senate Chaplain Barry Black, a retired Navy vice admiral, said in his daily opening prayer Wednesday, “Lord, when our federal shutdown delays payments of death benefits to the families of children dying on faraway battlefields, it’s time for our lawmakers to say enough is enough.”

As we’re finding out, however, it’s amazing what it takes for lawmakers to do the right and decent thing.

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