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Pentagon's No.2 official stepping down: Hagel
by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) Oct 10, 2013


Congress restores US military death benefits
Washington (AFP) Oct 10, 2013 - Congress moved Thursday to reinstate US military death benefits, after the government shutdown halted the payments to grieving families of US soldiers killed on duty.

The Senate passed the mini funding bill by unanimous consent one day after the House of Representatives approved the measure. It now goes to President Barack Obama for his signature.

The passage could mark the end of a deeply embarrassing development for the administration, feuding lawmakers and the Pentagon, which was forced to turn to a private charity Wednesday to fund the death benefits after the government shutdown suspended the payments.

That announcement came hours after Obama demanded urgent congressional action and as the plight of four families who lost loved ones in Afghanistan grabbed headlines, sparking public outrage.

"What I think we did here was the right thing to do," said Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat whose party has vehemently opposed the Republican strategy of passing piecemeal funding bills to open certain parts of the government.

"We are trying to put out these little fires, spare the American people of the pain and injustice that's coming about as a result of this shutdown."

Since October 1, when the began, 29 troops have been killed, according to the Pentagon.

As of Wednesday, none of their families had received the funds.

Fisher House Foundation, a private charity devoted to helping combat veterans, had agreed to finance the death benefits while the Pentagon would reimburse the group once government funding was restored.

But Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel expressed disgust that political deadlock in Congress had forced the extraordinary step.

"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," he said.

The White House has accused Republicans of causing the problem by shutting down federal operations with a failure to pass a new budget before October 1, and for not including the provision in a bill already signed by Obama to ensure soldiers on deployment still get paid during the shutdown.

Republican lawmakers in turn blamed the president and his fellow Democrats for the shutdown and for the suspension of death benefit payments.

Relatives of soldiers killed on the battlefield abroad or on duty at home are normally entitled to $100,000 in death benefits to cover housing allowances, as well as costs for the burial and dignified transfer of remains.

With Washington bickering over the budget, Hagel traveled Wednesday to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to pay his respects to four soldiers killed this week in Afghanistan.

The Pentagon's number-two ranking official is stepping down from his post, officials said Thursday amid reports of strains between him and his boss, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

The surprise announcement came in a statement from Hagel, who said he had "reluctantly accepted" Ashton Carter's decision to resign in a meeting earlier Thursday.

"Ash has been an extraordinarily loyal and effective Deputy Secretary," Hagel said.

Carter was due to remain in the job for another two months to help the Pentagon as it grapples with a government shutdown and automatic budget cuts, officials said.

Carter, who had served as the deputy from October 2011 under former defense secretary Leon Panetta, had reportedly enjoyed more autonomy under the previous Pentagon chief and had been on a short list to succeed Panetta in the top post.

Hagel has had a more hands-on approach than Panetta and had wanted Carter's role more strictly defined with a primary focus on the defense budget instead of broader policy issues, according to some former officials and a recent report in Foreign Policy.

But defense officials on Thursday rejected that idea and insisted there was no serious strain between Carter and Hagel.

They said the outgoing deputy defense secretary enjoyed an excellent professional relationship with the Pentagon chief.

"There was no conflict," said a defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Pentagon press secretary George Little said the decision to leave the Pentagon "was Deputy Secretary Carter's and his alone."

"He'll be missed by the Secretary. They've had a strong and effective working relationship and friendship that will continue for the next two months and beyond." he said in an email.

Before starting as the Pentagon number two, Carter had worked as the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, the top US weapons buyer, technology and logistics, overseeing an urgent effort to buy heavily-armored vehicles to better protect troops in Afghanistan.

In a resignation letter, Carter said he had long planned to wrap up his tenure on December 4th but had postponed making the announcement due to the "turbulence surrounding the fiscal situation."

Carter said he would now focus on "my next big challenge," though he did not elaborate.

"So it is time for me to go."

A former Harvard professor and Rhodes scholar who earned a doctorate in theoretical physics from Oxford University, Carter had served at the Pentagon during Bill Clinton's presidency in the 1990s and is deemed an expert on arms control.

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