Thursday, January 22, 2009

Senator Lisa Murkowski Furious With DoD For Cutting Off Retirement Benefits To Former Alaska Territorial Guard Members Without Adequate Notice

Temporary fix arranged - updated details posted towards the end of the post.

On January 22nd, 2008, the Anchorage Daily News and the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported that the Department of the Army is terminating retirement credit for time served in a largely Native militia formed to guard the territory of Alaska from Japanese attack during World War II. The change means 26 surviving members of the Alaska Territorial Guard -- most in their 80s and long retired -- will lose as much as $557 in monthly retirement pay, a state veterans officer said today. The pay claims of 37 others have been suspended.

The Department of Defense's excuse is that the law was initially misinterpreted. An analysis by the Department of Defense determined that the Army is not authorized in the law to count Territorial Guard service for the purpose of calculating retirement pay, according to Lt. Col. Richard McNorton of the Army's human resources command in Alexandria, Va. "The focus is to follow the law," he said. "We can't choose whether to follow the law. We have to follow the law." But at least the Army doesn't intend to seek to recoup past pay.

Alaska Governor Sarah Palin is irate, and said the state is pursuing a remedy for "these brave Alaskans, who did so much for the cause of freedom during a time of great national peril". In a statement, she continued, "It took nearly 60 years before the federal government honored these defenders of our territory for their service. While most died waiting for this recognition, the few who survive are now being told their Territorial Guard service is not worthy of federal recognition. This is unacceptable. These people are no less heroic than the militias at Lexington and Concord, or the defenders of the Alamo."

An estimated 300 members are still living from the original 6,600-member unit called up from 1942 to 1947 to conduct various functions including scouting patrols and construction of military airstrips. But only a fraction had enough other military service to reach the 20-year requirement for retirement pay. None were paid for their service in the Territorial Guard.

What hasn't yet been reported in the Alaska media, because it is too new, is the reaction of Alaska's Congressional delegation. Alaska's senior U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski has reacted, and she is absolutely and justifiably furious. And she called in to the Dan Fagan Show and explained the situation.

Senator Murkowski disclosed that this maneuver was planned two months ago. However, DOD did not at any time bring the legislative loophole to the attention of Alaska's delegation to give them a chance to address it. Instead, DoD just proceeded with the decision to cut the veterans off. Alaska's delegation first learned of it only when the commander of the Alaska National Guard, Lt. Gen. Craig Campbell, gave Murkowski a courtesy call to let her know that something was up and that he could not successfully resolve it through the chain of command. When Senator Murkowski contacted the Secretary of the Army, the Secretary then explained why the veterans were being cut off and pointed out the legislative loophole.

In response, Senator Murkowski disclosed that she's writing a letter to President Obama asking for a review of the decision, and, along with Senator Mark Begich and Congressman Don Young, is drafting legislation which will plug the loophole and ensure the Territorial Guard veterans continue to receive their retirement pay.

One of the affected Territorial Guard veterans is 88-year-old Paul Kiunya in the Western Alaska village of Kipnuk. Kiunya was 16 when he joined the Territorial Guard. He worked in communications, reporting by radio any unusual noises or the direction of aircraft, including some Japanese planes he spotted. Kiunya -- who later put in 22 years in the National Guard and another decade in the Guard Reserves -- will lose more than $358 in his retirement package because of the Army's decision. With gasoline in his village at almost $10 a gallon, that's a huge amount.

Update January 28th: The Anchorage Daily News reports that he Secretary of the Army has authorized emergency funds for 26 surviving members of a World War II Alaska militia unit whose retirement pay was being reduced because of a legal technicality. Army Secretary Pete Geren will dip into an emergency fund to cover the pay for the 26 former members of the largely Native guard, according to the delegation. The one-time emergency payment will equal two months' pay while Congress works on legislation to fix the law to allow the service in the unit to counts as active duty for calculating retirement pay.

It is absolutely inexcusable to just cut these elderly veterans off with no notice. They are too old to go out and get jobs to make up for the loss of income - assuming there were any jobs out in the Bush Alaska villages, which generally there are not. DoD should have had enough sense to alert Alaska's Congressional delegation to the problem in advance.

But these bureaucrats have their iron rice bowls, and 88-year-old veterans are nothing more than statistics to them. Kudos to Sarah Palin and the Alaska Congressional delegation for moving expeditiously to solve the problem.

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