RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — Thousands of airmen stationed in Europe who were erroneously paid a housing allowance won’t have to pay the money back.

The Air Force has granted a waiver requested by the U.S. Air Forces in Europe command, allowing 8,650 airmen affected by the error to keep the money, according an Air Force Review Boards Agency memo.

Servicemembers mistakenly received an average of $479 each between Oct. 1, 2005, and July 31, 2006, due to a misunderstanding of the rules regarding housing benefits, finance officials said.

The Air Force will foot the $4.14 million bill, a figure slightly higher than initially given.

Forgiving the debt should be good news to airmen, especially with Christmas approaching.

A note about the payment mistake was posted to leave and earnings statements in September and November.

USAFE finance officials said they fought hard to forgive the debt because it wasn’t the fault of the servicemembers and the airmen did not know they were receiving the erroneous entitlement.

“We did a lot of work to get this,” said Lt. Col. Lilly Lopez, chief of the USAFE Financial Services Division at Ramstein.

The affected airmen had received Basic Allowance for Housing even though new rules had eliminated the payments. Before Oct 1, 2005, airmen received the flat-rate allowance — based on rank — between the time they reported to their new base and the time they either began receiving an Overseas Housing Allowance or began living in base housing.

Servicemembers continue to collect a Temporary Lodging Allowance, or TLA, to offset living expenses as they search for a permanent home at their new duty station. The Overseas Housing Allowance is given to military members once they sign a lease; it helps pay for most housing expenses for the duration of their assignment.

Finance officials in Europe had sought clarification on the housing rules last January after questions emerged about the difference in how Army and Air Force members were paid housing benefits, Lopez said.

But it wasn’t until June, after many phone calls and e-mails, that the Per Diem, Travel and Transportation Allowance Committee set the record straight and confirmed that airmen in Europe were overpaid.

The law that eliminated the Basic Allowance for Housing for servicemembers overseas was passed in 1997, but it didn’t become effective until eight years later.

“We continued to pay this Basic Allowance for Housing to servicemembers in trying to take care of them not realizing we should have just cut it off,” said Maj. Brian Kehl, chief of the division’s Accounting and Finance Operations Branch. “So it was not that the accounting systems were messed up or anything like that. It was a policy misjudgment that was made by many, many people on a very confusing law that was passed a long time ago.”

The Financial Services Division submitted the waiver in September but the decision was not made until last Friday to grant it because of the painstaking process of identifying every airmen affected, Kehl said. The payments were discontinued on Aug. 1.

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