Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Pentagon Continues Efforts To Recoup Enlistment Bonuses From Wounded Troops
U.S. troops wounded in Iraq are being ordered to repay the bonuses they got for signing up, after war injuries cut short their service. Troops, their families, veterans, and lawmakers are calling the practice disgraceful. Full story reported by KTVI Channel 2 in St. Louis (Fox 2).
KTVI spoke with 20-year old Jordan Fox, a wounded soldier sent home to Pittsburgh after being wounded by a roadside bomb in Iraq in March 2007. He said he was supposed to get a $14,000 enlistment bonus for his 3 year commitment to serve. At the time the roadside bomb left him blind in one eye and injured his back, he'd already received $7500 of the bonus. He recently got a letter demanding the repayment of more than $2800 of the bonus.
"I tried to do my best and serve my country," Fox said. "Unfortunately I was hurt in the process. Now they're telling me they want their money back."
Congressman Todd Akin (R-St. Louis County), who represents Missouri's Second Congressional District, called the recoupment of bonuses from wounded troops "absolutely unacceptable." Akin sits on the House Armed Services Committee, and has three children in the military. He said he was unaware of any other cases like Fox's, but said if it was happening, he and the rest of the committee would stop it. "If it is, it is something that will be changed, something I would never tolerate. I just don't think people on the Armed Services Committee would tolerate that," Akin said.
Democratic congressman Jason Altmire of Pittsburgh has just introduced a bill to guarantee wounded troops full payment of bonuses within 30 days of discharge; in which case Fox would be getting a check instead of a bill.
Fox not only denies that it's about the money, but seems to be put out only about the fact that he's being asked to pay back a part of the bonuse already received. He doesn't seem to be asking to be paid the balance of his bonus. Fox reiterates that he is proud to have done something for his country. "Anybody who is taking the risk to go into the war zone and basically has a purple heart, they've been wounded, those are people we need to be saying 'thank you' to, and certainly not going back and trying to get money out of their pockets," Akin said.
A spokeswoman for the Missouri National Guard said its enlistment agreements already guarantee bonuses to troops wounded during service, combat or no combat, provided the injuries did not result from misconduct. Furthermore, military policy specifically prohibits the recoupment of bonus pay from wounded troops, unless the pay results from misconduct.
Nevertheless, Fox still got the letter.
Most cases of this type have to do with the practice of discharging troops for pre-existing "personality disorders" instead of combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder. The military will then often stop bonus payments and even try to recoup payments already made to the troops. But the presidential commission on care for wounded troops led by veteran and former Senator Bob Dole and former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala identified the "personality disorder" issue as a problematic practice in need of review.
Missouri Republican Senator Kit Bond and Democrat Barack Obama even joined forces in trying to restrict the use of such discharges and close the loophole in the military appropriations bill.
This is not a new problem. It is a part of a greater problem documented in an April 2006 Washington Post report about an estimated 900 wounded troops who were being pursued for various debts to the government, including recoupment of already-paid enlistment bonuses.
And the financial abuse of wounded troops even extends to the disability rating system. According to a February 2007 Army Times report, the U.S. Army was allegedly deliberately shortchanging troops on disability retirement ratings to hold down costs. Some individual cases are documented on the Militarytimes.com forum. The case of Gregory Franklin is documented in a November 11th, 2007 Louisville Courier-Journal report.
And the abuse of veterans even extends to the employment front. Apparently, returning veterans are finding it difficult to get their old civilian jobs back. They are either being denied re-employment altogether, or are being offered alternative employment hundreds and even thousands of miles away from their hometowns. A recently-relased Pentagon survey of reservists in 2005-2006, documented on Yahoo News, reported that 44 percent said they were dissatisfied with how the Labor Department handled their complaint of employment discrimination based on their military status, up from 27 percent in 2004. Nearly one-third, or 29 percent, said they had difficulty getting the information they needed from government agencies charged with protecting their rights, while 77 percent of those with a complaint reported they didn't even bother trying to get assistance in part because they didn't think it would make a difference. Pentagon apologists claim it is primarily due to lack of education amongst employers.
Alaska's own U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski highlighted such a problem. One case involving an Alaskan veteran has dragged on for seven years — and counting. According to Sen. Murkowski, a constituent who worked for the Indian National Health Service had no job after returning from military duty because the agency no longer existed. When that happens to federal employees, the Office of Personnel Management is required to find them another job. The individual’s complaint has not yet been resolved by the Labor Department. He did find a job — but it’s 90 minutes by plane from his home to his office.
Analysis: Enlistment bonuses are normally paid in annual increments rather than lump sum. This means that if one enlists for three years, the bonus will be subdivided into three increments, with each increment paid on the anniversary month of the enlistment.
Whether the unpaid part of the bonus should be paid is debatable. In the case of Jordan Fox, he received $7,500 of a $14,000 total bonus. Since he didin't serve the remainder of his enlistment, even though it was through no fault of his own, perhaps a case can be made that he shouldn't get the unpaid $6,500 balance.
What is NOT debatable is whether or not the Army should be recouping any part of what was already paid Fox. It is an insult to Fox to ask him to pay back $2,800 of the bonus received. This merely adds insult to injury, particularly if the money saved is used to pay for $100,000 per year Blackwater mercenaries in Iraq, many of who are foreign nationals. Just like our immigration policy, we are sending the message to the American people that foreigners are more important than American citizens. And if we continue to short-change our veterans, what do you suppose that will do to enlistment rates???
Apologists for the existing system claim that, in many cases, the way to change these results is to change the law. Congress and the Bush Administration need to quit trying to balance the budget on the backs of veterans. Congress needs to better define the role of the government in providing assistance to veterans, and to optimally fund and staff those efforts. If these means rescinding the tax cuts for the rich, or cutting the civil rights bureaucracy, or reducing our military presence and involvement outside the United States to pay for these reforms, then we do it.
While the military is NOT the only dangerous profession, it is the only profession in which a person can actually go to jail for refusing to go in harm's way. This premise alone justifies the special treatment accorded to veterans.