Gaps emerge in U.S. efforts to shield troops, vets from shutdown

WASHINGTON Thu Oct 3, 2013 4:24pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When President Barack Obama signed the "Pay Our Military Act" on Monday, the goal was to ensure that U.S. troops get their salaries on time during the federal government shutdown along with essential payments like housing allowances.

But what about enlistment bonuses, which some sailors say are being delayed? And Pentagon lawyers are also still trying to determine whether they can immediately pay benefits like death gratuities to families of any troops who might die on active duty during the shutdown.

America's veterans also are being cautioned that although health services at the Department of Veterans Affairs are functioning normally, a prolonged shutdown could have wide implications for former service members.

Payment of benefits - VA pays everything from monthly disability checks for those wounded in combat to tuition assistance for those studying under the G.I. Bill - could be delayed if the shutdown last longer than a few weeks.

Veterans' advocates warn that could have serious repercussions on former service members, many of whom depend on those checks.

"It's tremendously stressful for a community that's already under tremendous stress," said Paul Rieckhoff, the executive director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which counts 275,000 members from the Afghan and Iraq wars.

Rieckhoff said calls to one of his group's telephone hotlines quadrupled since the shutdown began.

The VA is warning that the shutdown will likely undermine its recent success reducing the size of the backlog in outstanding veterans' claims.

Perceived slights to America's troops or veterans can be politically dangerous, as the National Park Service learned this week. War veterans, many in wheelchairs, moved past barricades on Tuesday into the shuttered National World War II Memorial - which had been closed because of the shutdown.

There was uproar in the media over the television images and the National Park Service on Wednesday said it would allow veterans into the memorial under the Constitution's First Amendment, which includes the right to free speech and assembly.

In the coming hours and days, active duty troops will learn more about which - if any - of their payments could be seriously delayed in an extended shutdown.

Although no decision has been made, Pentagon lawyers are likely to approve hazard pay for troops serving in hot spots like Afghanistan and other special disbursements.

But complaints by Navy sailors about their failure to receive annual installments of their re-enlistment bonuses at the start of October, as expected, is exposing some gaps.

"We're getting feedback from sailors that they're not getting those anniversary payments," said one Navy official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Some current and former Navy service members commenting on the website of Navy Times, which first reported the missed payments, said the Defense Finance and Accounting Services told them funds were not available to make those payments.

Austin Clayburg, identifying himself as a petty officer 2nd class who works at the Navy Munitions Command in Fallon, Nevada, said he was depending on the payment.

"I never got it and still don't have it," said Clayburg in an email message to Reuters.

"I was really counting on that money for a trip home."

DFAS could not be immediately reached for comment. A Pentagon spokesman said issues related to bonuses were under examination as lawyers study the "Pay Our Military Act."

(Editing by Doina Chiacu)

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