Memorial Day, Sequester-Style: Honoring Soldiers by Cutting Their Benefits

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Unofficially, Memorial Day weekend marks the start of summer, and the opening day for many pools and amusement parks. But more meaningfully, Memorial Day is the day that America sets aside to honor the soldiers who died in its wars. This year, however, Memorial Day is tinged with an additional dark cloud, due to the painful cuts budget sequestration is inflicting on some of the honors and benefits that America bestows on its veterans and their families.

Taking Care of the Final Honor

One of the highest honors America gives to those who served it is burial in Arlington National Cemetery. Like Memorial Day itself, the cemetery dates back to the Civil War, when the federal government declared that the land surrounding General Robert E. Lee's mansion in Arlington would be used as a cemetery for the Union's fallen servicemen. Today, an estimated 400,000 former soldiers and their spouses -- including John F. Kennedy, civil rights leader Medgar Evers, and actor Lee Marvin -- are interred in the cemetery.

Arlington is one of the most exclusive cemeteries in America; the majority of those buried there were either active duty military personnel, retired from the military with full benefits, were prisoners of war, or had previously been awarded one of a small group of medals. It isn't hard to see why Arlington is so selective -- after all, if every person who ever served in the military was granted access to the cemetery, it would have long since been filled.

Right now, Arlington is in the middle of what planners call the Millennium Project, a long-term expansion and reconstruction that will protect the cemetery and make space available for more soldiers. Expansion and restoration don't come cheap: the Millennium Project is budgeted at $103 million. But, because the project's funding has been hit by sequestration, that budget has already been cut by 8 percent -- and funding for the cemetery may well be cut by even more in coming years.

The immediate impact of these cuts is fairly small: Instead of building two columbaria for storing the remains of the dead, Arlington will only be able to build one, a move that will cost the cemetery spaces for 3,000 veterans. Initially, it looked like personnel cuts were going to force the cemetery to cut its number of funerals by 160 per month, but a last-minute change made it possible for Arlington to cut its budget without furloughing any of its staff.

In the meantime, as Jennifer Lynch, the cemetery's public affairs officer, notes, "Arlington is absorbing this cut by using the last of the funds that were recovered from previous fiscal years." In other words, previous surpluses are making it possible for the cemetery to maintain regular operations. What will occur in the future is less clear. Lynch wouldn't speculate on how further cuts would affect the cemetery, but she did note that the cemetery "expects its 2014 budget to be further reduced." Those reductions -- which will eventually total an estimated 9.4 percent -- could have an impact on everything from plumbing to grave maintenance.

Taking Care of Families Left Behind

Arlington isn't the only place where sequestration will impact the way America treats its fallen soldiers and their families: Veterans' Administration and Department of Defense programs that are designed to help military families have also taken a hit under sequestration. The VA's Survivors' Pension Benefits program, which provides needs-based financial help for the spouses and children of fallen soldiers, is scheduled to lose $84.5 million, a 5.3 percent cut. Another program, the Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, gives a small monthly payment to the spouses and children of fallen soldiers. It's also facing a 5.3 percent cut, which will cost those survivors $307.5 million.

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The children of deceased soldiers aren't the only kids who will be feeling the effects of sequestration. The Department of Defense Education Activity and the Supplemental to Impact Aid, two programs that help fund schools for military dependents, are both facing 5.2 percent cuts, which are likely to total almost $103 million. For military families stationed abroad or in domestic bases far from home, these programs sometimes mean the difference between a good school and a terrible one. And, with cuts eroding their funding, the scale is tipping toward terrible.

'A Slow, Negative Creep'

Given that the cuts to military programs are a relatively small 5.2 to 5.3 percent, it's easy to imagine that the effect will be similarly marginal. But as activist Jim Strickland, veterans' advocate and webmaster of VA Watchdog, points out, "Dependents and survivors aren't getting rich on what they're receiving each month." Assuming that a military widow even qualifies for dependency compensation, she will only receive $1,195 per month, plus an additional $296 for each dependent child.

With money slowly leaking out of the system, it seems likely that survivor benefits will continue to shrink, leading to what Strickland calls a "gradual negative creep from the bottom up." And, with VA money drying up, military families will become more dependent on civilian benefits like Medicaid, food stamps, social security, and other social safety net programs. Of course, those programs are also being stretched thin ... and many are facing sequestration cuts.

Ultimately, the problem comes down to visibility. America's soldiers and their families quietly serve, allowing the military to move them around the country -- and the world -- to where they're most needed. They don't make a lot of money, but part of the implied deal is that, if they are injured or killed, the military will take care of them and their families. That sacrifice is a large part of what Memorial Day was designed to honor.

Unlike TSA cuts, which lead to big headlines and attention-getting delays at airports, cuts to VA programs quietly impact people who have already agreed to support their country. Like so many beneficiaries of many other social safety net programs, veterans and their families are not loud or wealthy, and don't leap to put themselves in front of cameras. Still, they made a deal with the country, and are owed benefits commensurate with their sacrifices. Or, as Strickland puts it, "Until America has the resources available to take care of its vets and families, it should stop creating them."

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Bruce Watson is DailyFinance's Savings editor. You can reach him by e-mail at, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.