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Defense Department officials have characterized as “absurd” the notion that they support a pay reduction Oct. 1 for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The notion arose, however, within the department itself.

Despite a hurried news conference Aug. 14 to ease the impact on troop morale, Defense officials still couldn’t explain in detail how U.S. occupation forces would avoid a pay cut if Congress follows the Bush administration’s own advice and allows up to $225 a month in special pay raises to expire.

In July, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and staff corresponded with the chairmen of the armed services committees to give guidance to House-Senate conferees on resolving differences in separate versions of the 2004 defense bills. Among items Rumsfeld and staff opposed were “unrequested” increases in pays and allowances including a $150-a-month increase in Family Separation Allowance and a $75-a-month boost in Imminent Danger Pay.

Congress enacted both raises last April, and made them retroactive to October 2002, as a “thank you” to deployed servicemembers, particularly those fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The special pay increases, however, are set to expire Sept. 30 unless Congress votes to extend them.

The Senate version of the defense bill would make the FSA and IDP increases permanent. The House would keep them only until Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, in Afghanistan, ended.

Defense officials had advised against either alternative but, until the recent firestorm, proposed no substitute. Since last spring Defense officials argued against the special pay increases, saying they were inefficient as an award for troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan because the extra money goes to tens of thousands of servicemembers deployed elsewhere.

Family Separation Allowance, which Congress raised from $100 a month to $250, is paid to any servicemember forced to live away from family for more than 30 days. Before the Iraq war, roughly 200,000 members drew FSA including married sailors and Marines on routine sea deployments.

Imminent Danger Pay, which jumped from $150 a month to $225, is paid to anyone serving in one of scores of designated danger areas around the world. At least 250,000 drew danger pay before the Iraq war.

David Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said that last April’s increases were like “using a sledgehammer to hit a small nail.”

In early August, Army Times focused anew on DOD’s opposition to extending the special pay increases beyond Sept. 30. A headline said the department wanted to “slash” danger and separation pay. This sparked other news articles, along with scathing editorials and feigned outrage by Democrats including nine declared presidential candidates for 2004.

On Aug. 14, Chu and Larry Di Rita, the department’s acting spokesman, held a news conference to try to defuse the issue. Di Rita called reports that the administration supported pay cuts for those in Iraq and Afghanistan not just wrong but “absurd.”

Chu said he was “startled” by the uproar and said the administration was committed to protecting pay levels for troops facing combat. By the time their news conference ended, however, the pair still left unanswered how DOD could protect pay levels for troops in two countries while urging Congress to allow the special pay increases to expire.

“There is an open issue about how we’re going to do that,” Chu said. But DOD “has a variety of pay and allowance powers” to make it happen. He referred to a possible increase in hazardous duty pay, which presumably would require legislation. He also referred to a new assignment incentive pay. But DOD hadn’t proposed funding either initiative earlier.

No pay experts were made available to explain the new authorities. Chu suggested there was no need to shape a specific proposal to protect the pay of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan until Congress decides whether to extend the April increases. That strategy, however, left lawmakers with no alternative to consider in their conference next month on the defense bill.

Regardless of what Congress or the Bush administration intends to occur Oct. 1, the special pay hikes of April could disappear from paychecks for at least a month, even for troops in Iraq. That’s because Congress left town in August with increases in FSA and IDP still set to expire Sept. 30.

Because military finance centers must adhere to the law as written when their deadlines arrive to set the next month’s pay, October checks could reflect a temporary return to pre-Iraq pay levels, one official explained.

If so, higher payments could be restored again in November and made retroactive to Oct. 1.

Student loan reprieve

President Bush has signed legislation that gives the secretary of education authority to allow deployed servicemembers and mobilized reservists to delay repayment of education loans.

The Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students bill was introduced by freshman Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., who said it will bring “a little more peace of mind to student soldiers” and help to ensure they are not penalized financially for their service.

The law will relieve reservists of paying student loans for a time and their families from receiving lender collection calls.

The Department of Education will administer the program.

— Comments are welcomed. Write Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA 20120-1111, e-mail milupdate@aol.com or visit Philpott’s Web site at: www.militaryupdate.com

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