PROMISES, PROMISES: GI retirement benefit lacking

AP News
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Posted: Mar 21, 2011 4:22 AM
PROMISES, PROMISES: GI retirement benefit lacking

A law meant to provide early retirement as a reward for National Guard and Reserve members who were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan is instead leaving many of them perplexed and frustrated.

When Congress wrote the law three years ago, it said Guard and Reserve members called up for 90 days or more for war service or other federal duty would be credited for work "in any fiscal year" toward early retirement for each day they were mobilized. Earning the credit would allow them to retire before age 60 if they had 20 years of service.

But the Pentagon has interpreted that to mean a 90-day period of service had to be completely served within a single fiscal year. The federal fiscal year goes from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30. So if a Guard member were to be deployed for three months beginning in September, the time wouldn't count because the 90 days would be split between two fiscal years.

The situation has added insult to injury for troops already upset that Congress only included Guard and Reserve members deployed after the law was signed in early 2008, leaving out the 600,000 troops mobilized between the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the time the law was enacted. The combined issues could mean retirement will be delayed months or even years for thousands of Guard and Reserve members.

To fix the glitches would cost an estimated $2 billion, money that would be hard to find in the current budget crisis.

"It's more than a mess," said retired Navy Capt. Ike Puzon, director of government affairs at the Association of the United States Navy in Alexandria, Va.

About 800,000 Guard and Reserve troops have mobilized for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 1,100 have died. Others have come home from war to find their jobs downsized and little work available.

Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer David E. Clauss, 46, an electronics technician, is one such member looking for a job. The reservist was mobilized to do security in Groton, Conn., for almost two years after 9/11. He later did military customs duty, primarily in Kuwait, and then earned a Bronze Star for work in Afghanistan in 2008-2009 helping to train the Afghan military. About five months of his work in Afghanistan likely doesn't count toward early retirement, nor does the almost four years of mobilization before 2008.

"I think it is sort of important for the government to help out the folks who have done multiple deployments," said Clauss, of East Providence, R.I. "We've answered the call."

Little has changed in the structure of the retirement system for members of the Guard and Reserve since it was created in 1948, when Guard and Reserve troops were only expected to be called up for war service like that in World War II, said retired Army Col. Bob Norton, deputy director of government relations at the Military Officers Association of America. The Guard and Reserves were leaned on heavily in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Bosnia, Kosovo and then after 9/11.

"The national policy changed, but the compensation system was the same at it was in 1948 when it was created," Norton said. "We're now imposing a lot more sacrifice on families and _ think about this _ on the adverse impact on a Reservist's capability of pursuing a meaningful civilian career."

Some in Congress pushed to give members of the Guard and Reserve one year of early retirement for every two years of war service. And they wanted them to be able to use the military's health insurance, Tricare, at retirement without having to wait until age 60.

What passed the Senate in 2007 was a provision that allowed those called up after Sept. 11 to have one day of early retirement for every day they were mobilized. But when House and Senate negotiators met to hammer out annual defense spending, it was determined there wasn't enough money to retroactively give the benefit to those who served before 2008.

"It seems unfair," said Air Force Maj. Sharon Dondlinger, 36, of Manassas Park, Va., a reservist who did more than a year of security duty in Atlanta following 9/11 and then deployed to Iraq in 2005. "It doesn't seem fair that an arbitrary date of when the legislation was passed should make someone's time mobilized more valuable than mine."

Only later did the fiscal-year wording issue become apparent.

At a hearing last year, Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., told Assistant Defense Secretary Dennis McCarthy that Congress intended for time for early retirement "to be counted regardless of whether the active duty period occurred across fiscal years." He said the Defense Department "somehow has implemented this that if it is across the fiscal years, that it doesn't count at all."

McCarthy responded that he was "well aware of the anomaly."

"I think everybody understands that it is not what ... the Congress intended" and "is not the right thing to do," McCarthy said. He said wasn't sure if it was going to take a legislative fix or a directive from the Pentagon to resolve the issue.

In a statement, Lt. Col. Robert L. Ditchey II, a Defense Department spokesman, said the Defense Department is "fully committed to providing benefits to members as intended by legislation. We are working with Congress to resolve this interpretation concern and ensure that congressional intent is met."

Reps. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, and Dan Boren, D-Okla., recently wrote a letter to House colleagues asking support for legislation they said they plan to file that would eliminate the fiscal-year glitch.

Meanwhile, Navy Cmdr. Pamela Boyd Shields, 59, who would have retired from the Reserves by now if her service after 9/11 had counted, said she can't believe Congress hasn't already resolved the matter.

"I think this is how Congress just lets things go away," said Boyd Shields, of Alexandria, Va. "They just ignore it."

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Online:

Military Officers Association of America: http://www.moaa.org/

Association of the United States Navy: http://www.ausn.org/

Reserve Officers Association: http://www.roa.org/site/

Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States: http://www.memberconnections.com/