Air Force’s enlisted leader says she’ll speak out for US airmen facing tax devastation in Germany
Stars and Stripes December 1, 2021
RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — The U.S. Air Force’s top enlisted leader, after getting bombarded with pleas for help from military community members fighting the German government’s attempts to tax their pay, said Wednesday she will advocate for the affected airmen and their families.
For more than a year, the U.S. military in Europe and the American embassy in Berlin have made no tangible progress on resolving a dispute that has forced some to pay six-figure amounts in German income taxes and penalties, even after they’ve had their military income taxed by the United States.
At issue is a disagreement over how to interpret the Status of Forces Agreement, which is designed to put military pay off limits to foreign tax collectors.
“It was pretty concerning to hear some of the stories,” said Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force JoAnne S. Bass during a stop at Ramstein Air Base, part of her first official visit to Germany since assuming her role in August 2020.
It’s a diplomatic issue, Bass said, but “any hardship to our airmen is disappointing to all of us, so we really have to get to the root of the matter and do our best to help influence the Department of State and the German government to come to a resolution to help families.”
Upon her arrival at Ramstein, Bass heard from airmen, military civilians and spouses embroiled in high stakes fights with local German tax authorities.
“I am at risk of being taxed hundreds of thousands of euros because I am married to a local national (German woman),” wrote an Air Force master sergeant in a post on Bass’ official Facebook account.
That airman said he later received a phone call from Bass, who vowed to look into the situation and wanted to hear from others who have been affected in similar ways.
Scores of military personnel expressed similar concerns to Bass on Facebook, saying that they have been left to fend for themselves.
“The host nation tax authorities will not stop unless stopped,” wrote a spouse in another message to Bass. “We are witnessing them threaten US citizens protected by SOFA with arrest and are in awe how this has become the norm for them.”
Another spouse said, “to say we are being preyed upon by the (finance authority) here in Germany would be an understatement.”
Some tax offices contend that If a service member or military civilian isn’t in Germany “solely” for their job, they can be treated as an ordinary resident.
However, there’s no concrete mechanism for making that judgment, and the State Department has rejected the rationale.
Military community members say they have been told by authorities that they were identified because they married a German, owned property or even extended their tours.
To avoid being taxed, a person must prove a “willingness” to return to the U.S. But tax authorities have continued to pursue service members even after they’ve returned.
Germany is the only country where U.S. forces face these financial risks, which also can involve finance offices imposing extra penalties for access to on-base “privileges” such as commissary shopping, cheaper gas, gym use and access to Defense Department schools for their children.
Bass said she was surprised by the sheer volume of pleas from people asking her for help.
But it also showed “the magnitude of what potentially is out there,” she said. “I think what hasn’t been presented to me is how many of our Americans have been impacted by this, and then how many of them are United States Air Force,” she said. “That’s pretty important information to know.”
Bass said she called an airman facing German taxation Tuesday night “because I wanted to understand one of the stories in its entirety. When I understand that story, I’m able to help advocate in a better way.”
The airman told Bass he has to pay out of pocket for a tax lawyer.
“After I listened to the challenges that he was experiencing, what I promised him, as I do all of our airmen, is that I’ll do my best to advocate on his behalf and at least reach out to the entities that do have opportunities to help engage and hopefully be able to get to something faster,” Bass said.
For years, the taxation conflict received little public attention as German authorities quietly began to open up tax cases. Initially, their focus was on U.S. contractors, but over time tax authorities — especially those in the greater Kaiserslautern area that includes Ramstein Air Base — expanded their focus.
In 2020, Stars and Stripes spotlighted the aggressive tactics used by some tax offices in Germany, highlighting how hundreds of personnel were getting targeted and that active-duty troops also were at risk.
Since then, the U.S. embassy in Berlin has lodged a formal complaint. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also raised the issue with his German counterpart in June.
Still, military members continue to get targeted.
In the area around Ramstein Air Base alone, there were roughly 400 cases as of last year. But the scope of the issue remains largely unknown since finance offices have not been forthcoming about how many people they have taxed or how much money has been seized from Americans.
Bass said she hasn’t been able to get data on the numbers of cases.
“I haven’t been tracking this, except for within the past few weeks,” Bass said. “Once I got involved, I started having conversations with both (U.S. European Command) and (U.S. Air Forces in Europe) senior leaders to be able to just say exactly where are we when it comes to United States Air Force airmen and their families,” she said.
A group of affected personnel, organized by spouse Mouna Litz, said they are now trying to compile a log of active cases. Affected families can learn more about the grassroots effort by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.