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Families of fallen soldiers to receive bodies, no benefits

Tony Dokoupil, Erin McClam, and Tracy Connor
(Left to right) 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.
Source: US Army

A cargo plane carrying the bodies of four fallen U.S. soldiers will land at Dover Air Force Base Wednesday morning, greeted by loved ones whose grief is laced with outrage that even they have not been spared from the government shutdown.

The solemn transfer ceremony is expected to take place in an atmosphere of tearful silence about 100 miles from the political bickering in the nation's capital, where a death benefit for the families of service members killed in the line of duty has fallen victim to the budget impasse.

In an apparent effort to stem the furor, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel plans to travel to Dover for the arrival of the bodies.

(Read more: Shutdown shuts off some expensive mortgages)

A white-gloved honor guard carries four flag-covered cases out of the belly of the military jet, past waiting relatives and into a mortuary vehicle so the bodies of the three men and one woman who made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan can be prepared for their final resting place.

How US assets will be impacted by shutdown

At least two of the families who will be in attendance say their heartache has been compounded by a repercussion of the shutdown: the government withholding a $100,000 "death gratuity" normally paid out to help tide them over until survivor benefits kick in, as detailed in a series of NBC News stories over the past two days, beginning with an Andrea Mitchell report on TODAY.

"It is upsetting because my husband died for his country, and now his family is left to worry," said Ashley Peters of Springfield, Mo., whose husband, Jeremy, was a special agent assigned to the Army's 5th Military Police Battalion and was among the four killed. "My husband always said if something happened to him we would be taken care of."

The father of Pfc. Cody Patterson, 24, of Philomath, Ore., noted that members of Congress "are still getting paid" a week after the government shutdown.

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"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 Tuesday as he prepared to fly to Delaware to retrieve his son's body.

Peters; Patterson; 1st Lt. Jennifer Moreno, 25, of San Diego; Sgt. Patrick Hawkins, 25, of Carlisle, Pa.; were killed Sunday by an improvised bomb in Zhari district, according to the Pentagon.

Seventeen service members have died since the government shut down Oct. 1, a senior defense official said, including six in Afghanistan. None has so far received the death gratuity.

Also suspended is a year's worth of housing allowance, typically paid in a lump sum to the surviving spouse or dependent children of a soldier. For a sergeant in the Washington area with dependents, it could amount to more than $2,000 a month.

And survivors are not receiving a reimbursement specifically aimed at burial and related expenses. That benefit is $9,000 for burial in a private cemetery and $6,000 for burial in a national cemetery.

"The government is hurting the wrong people," said Shannon Collins, whose Marine son, Lance Cpl. Jeremiah Collins, died Saturday while supporting combat operations in Helmand province.

(Read more: The real victims ofshutdown: Government workers)

"Families shouldn't have to worry about how they're going to bury their child," she said. "Families shouldn't have to worry about how they're going to feed their family if they don't go to work this week."

Veterans groups and members of Congress from both parties have expressed disgust over the delay in the payments.

Trading the shutdown

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a veteran, told his colleagues they should be ashamed.

"Shouldn't we as a body, Republican or Democrat — shouldn't we be embarrassed? Ashamed?" he asked. "What do American people think when they see that death benefit for those who served and sacrifice — they're not eligible?"

Waving a print-out of a news story about the suspension, he said: "I'm ashamed! I'm embarrassed. All of us should be."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also denounced the shutdown's denial of death benefits in the Senate and mentioned NBC News' Andrea Mitchell by name as he recounted the story.

(Read more: Federalshutdown jeopardizes some marathon races)

"The law passed last week to continue paying civilian members of the military during the shutdown but does not allow for payouts of the death benefits to families of the fallen, officials told Andrea Mitchell of NBC," Reid said.

Republican aides in Congress said that they were drafting legislation to restore the death gratuity, and that it could be put to a vote as early as Wednesday.

Aides also said they believed that last week's law had covered the payment.

"We gave broad authority to the Department of Defense to pay all kinds of bills, including this," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Tuesday afternoon. "And frankly, I think it's disgraceful that they're withholding these benefits. But again, tomorrow, the House is going to act specifically on this, and I hope the president will sign it."

In the meantime, a Maryland foundation stepped into the breach to potentially cover the death benefits. The Fisher House Foundation of Bethesda, Md., has offered the families of fallen soldiers advance grants until the government can make reimbursements to the foundation.

The grants will also cover flights, hotels and other incidentals, it said.

By Tony Dokoupil, Erin McClam, and Tracy Connor of NBC News. Katie Distler,Kasie Hunt, Courtney Kube and Jim Miklaszewski contributed to this report.

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