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The Department of Defense has asked Congress to roll back the Jan. 1 increases in Family Separation Allowance and Imminent Danger Pay enacted in April for deployed forces and, instead, to raise Hardship Duty Pay only for military personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

If Congress agrees, FSA for tens of thousands of personnel would fall in January, from $250 a month down to $100, and IDP would drop from $225 a month down to $150. So, depending on individual circumstance, the pay cut could range from $75 to $225 a month.

Among deployed forces, only troops in Afghanistan and Iraq would be spared an actual pay cut.

Indeed, many in those theaters could see a pay gain. Their HDP would be raised Jan. 1 by at least $225 a month, an amount to match any combined drop in FSA and IDP. HDP, in fact, could be raised as much as $300.

The uncertainty, as of Oct. 1, reflected the fact that Defense officials still weren’t prepared to discuss their plan to roll back FSA and IDP increases, and to raise HDP, even though broad details were revealed during a Sept. 25 hearing of Senate Appropriations Committee.

Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., criticized panel witnesses, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his comptroller, Dov Zakheim, for making “a serious mistake” with their plan to return FSA and IDP to pre-April levels.

“How in the world do we justify activating all these Guard and Reserve [forces], removing them from their families and saying, ‘If you don’t happen to be assigned to Iraq or Afghanistan, we’re going to revert back to $100 a month in Family Separation Allowance,’” Durbin asked Rumsfeld.

The move, said the senator, doesn’t square with recent rhetoric.

“We can give all the speeches we want about our respect for men and women in uniform but I find it unconscionable that we are going to say to so many thousands who have been activated that they are not going to receive an increase in Family Separation Allowance [because] it will be eliminated. How can that help morale? How can that say that, beyond those speeches, we really do care about these men and women?” asked Durbin.

Zakheim, who appeared with Rumsfeld to defend an $87 billion spending request for 2004 for Iraq and Afghanistan, acknowledged the plan to shift special pay levels. He argued, however, that raising Hardship Duty Pay would be fairer for troops in the two theaters because last April’s FSA increase went only to all members with families while HDP is paid to all members in the two hostile areas.

“So that removes an inequity,” Zakheim said.

“I disagree completely,” said Durbin. “The inequity is that somebody has to leave a family behind. … And the impact of increasing the hardship pay only in two theaters means an activated Guardsman out of Illinois who is sent to some other place — so that an active soldier can go to Iraq or Afghanistan — now is not going to get higher separation allowance.”

Rumsfeld offered his own defense of the special pay roll back. It was his understanding, he said, that the $87 billion request before the committee, under arrangement between the administration and Congress, “would be restricted to Iraq [and] we’ve conformed to the requirements.”

But Durbin warned that reductions in FSA and IDP were untimely and wrong. “You’re going to hear about it,” he told Rumsfeld. “And you should.”

It was unclear whether the warning had an impact and might be why Defense officials declined a week later to discuss their plan in more detail.

Congress raised FSA and IDP to show appreciation for troops involved in the war on terrorism. Defense officials opposed the move as inefficient, going to many more thousands of personnel than those in Iraq and Afghanistan. David Chu, the department’s top personnel official, likened the April raises “to using a sledgehammer to hit a small nail.”

Congress made the FSA and IDP increases retroactive to October 2002. They were to expire Sept. 30 unless lawmakers extended them. Congress signaled it would in mid-September when House-Senate conferees approved a 2004 defense appropriations bill with enough money — $128 million — to continue higher FSA and IDP through December.

One reason to delay the drop until January, the administration reasoned, is to mask the overall impact on troop paychecks by timing the cuts to coincide with annual raises in basic pay and allowances. But a quick look at military pay tables suggests most enlisted member pay and allowances won’t climb by enough Jan. 1 to avoid an overall pay cut for those who would see FSA and IDP fall by a combined $225 a month.

Though House-Senate appropriators supported the plan in the 2004 defense spending bill, a House-Senate conference on a defense authorization bill continued negotiations that still could alter plans for FSA and IDP. The Senate version of the authorization bill would make last April’s increases permanent.

The House version would narrow eligibility to personnel involved in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, in Afghanistan.

Defense officials were “emphasizing the warrior,” said a source involved in the conference and making a strong case that the way to raise wartime pay is higher HDP, and only for those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As of July, 173,000 servicemembers drew FSA, including sailors and Marines on routine sea deployments, if away from spouses and children more than 30 days. About 217,000 drew IDP, payable in any of scores of designated danger areas worldwide.

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

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