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3rd AF monitoring use of gas coupons, intended for duty travel only, in England

By RON JENSEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 16, 2005

RAF MILDENHALL, England — Use of Navy gas coupons in England for anything other than duty travel is not allowed and is being monitored.

This may be news to some Americans stationed in the United Kingdom, but it has been part of the agreement between the United States and the United Kingdom for nearly five decades.

“Duty driving has forever been a requirement,” said Lyndon James, director of international law for 3rd Air Force at RAF Mildenhall.

After complaints last fall from Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise, the government arm that deals with tax and customs issues, 3rd Air Force is now emphasizing the terms of the 1958 pact.

To that end, only sponsors can purchase the coupons, used to get gas at discount rates, for use at off-base stations and only 50 liters of coupons — about 13 gallons — can be purchased per week. On Tuesday, the 50-liter coupon book of regular unleaded gas was selling for $32.50, or about $2.50 a gallon.

More importantly, the coupons are to be used for duty travel only.

James said he met with Customs and Excise representatives at the base Monday to discuss the issue. He declined to discuss specifics, but said, “Our relationship is extremely good at the moment.”

The agreement broadly defines “duty travel.” It allows participation in activities “organized by, sponsored by or beneficial to” the U.S. forces in the United Kingdom. However, it specifically forbids “pleasure driving.”

For years, Americans in the military or connected to it in the United Kingdom have used the coupons for pleasure driving. HMCE, as it is called, complained after finding coupons being used in Scotland and being told by 3rd Air Force that there would be no reason for duty travel there.

James said the agreement allows the U.S. military to “control” the program.

The coupons found in Scotland implied a lack of control. With the new emphasis, he said, the military is living up to its part of the agreement.

The renewed emphasis on the rules greatly affects car travel in the United Kingdom. With the current exchange rate requiring nearly $2 for the purchase of 1 British pound, a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline on the economy costs about $6.

“That’s bad,” said Staff Sgt. Jarrod Kinner of the 100th Security Forces Squadron at RAF Mildenhall. “That’s going to slow down your ability to experience this part of the world.”

He spent about $60 to fill his car at a British station recently, much more than the $17.30 he spent to fill the same car Tuesday at the base.

Senior Airman John Martin of the 352nd Special Operations Group said he and his wife have decided against a trip to Scotland because of the gas prices.

“It’s just too costly,” he said.

It doesn’t require a nefarious mind to realize that buying and hoarding 50 liters of coupons each week for several weeks will take the family to Cornwall or Yorkshire or Wales, for example.

James pointed out that HMCE is keeping an eye out for misuse.

When HMCE first raised the issue, he said, “Our fear was, quite simply, that if we don’t control this system, someone would come in from outside and control it for us.”