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Charity that's paying military death benefits has Ft. Bragg connection

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FORT BRAGG, N.C. -

On day nine of the partial government shutdown, lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives passed a law that would restore benefits for families of fallen military members.

The vote came after an NBC News report revealed that the shutdown stopped customary $100,000 death benefit payments to families of service members killed on active duty. It is estimated at least 26 families have already been affected.

Late Wednesday, it was unclear if the Senate would approve the law.

It may not be necessary after the Pentagon finalized an agreement with the non-profit Fisher House Foundation. On Tuesday, the foundation offered to pay the death benefits to families during the shutdown. The agreement on Wednesday states that the Pentagon will reimburse Fisher House when the shutdown ends.

For the Fisher House, paying the death benefits is a step beyond what the foundation usually does, which is operate 60 homes near military hospitals, so families can stay for free while their loved one is receiving care. The houses also provide lodging when relatives need a place to stay while attending a loved one's military funeral services.

"It's like a Ronald McDonald house for the military and the veterans," said Lorie Southerland, the manager of the Fort Bragg Fisher House.

Fort Bragg has had a Fisher House for 20 years. In a few months there will be a groundbreaking for a new house that is even closer to Womack Army Medical Center.

"We tell them it doesn't cost anything and they can stay as long as it takes," Southerland said.

She knows first-hand how helpful the Fisher House can be. She first learned of the organization when her son Michael Rodriguez died in 2007, while serving in the 82nd airborne in Iraq. Some relatives stayed at the Fisher House at Fort Bragg while attending his services.

So she also understands how helpful the death benefits payments can be. The money helps in lots of ways like in making final arrangements or paying for relatives to travel to a service member's funeral.

"I'm not surprised at all," Southerland said about the Fisher House paying the death benefits during the shutdown. "For the fishers to step in and help, I know it means a lot for the families."

The family of Fort Bragg soldier Jennifer Moreno is one of the families affected by the stall in death benefits payments. The 1st Lieutenant and three others were killed in Afghanistan over the weekend. Their bodies were returned to Dover Air Force Base on Wednesday. The government "death gratuity" would normally pay for their families to travel to Dover. It is unclear if the Fisher House Foundation's offer to cover death benefits kicked in early enough to pay for those families to be at Dover on Wednesday.

The Fisher House at Fort Bragg operates on donations of money and supplies, including toiletries and food. For more information Southerland can be reached at fbfisherhouse@aol.com

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Brandon Herring

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