Thursday, February 04, 2010

Misconceptions, Red Bulls and the StarTibune

Or Veterans not Victims part 9

The Strib today is running a story with the headline-"Red Bulls Still Awaiting OT Pay".  The misleading headline gets worse as it talks about Rep John Kline's questioning of SecDef Gates about extra payments promised to us back in 2007.

As one of a handful of Red Bulls that came back from Iraq in 2007 and did get the special pay, I wanted to inject some facts into a terribly reported story, filled with inaccuracies and a poor understanding of how the military works. I posted on this before, and it makes a good intro to the topic.

Post Deployment Mobilization Respite Absence (PDMRA) is a long and unwieldy term for a fairly simple concept.  Because National Guard and Reserve units were being called on so frequently for Iraq and Afghanistan in 2005-2006, Congress pushed the Pentagon to create some sort of special pay to recognize soldiers who had been repeatedly deployed.  Since it takes the military years to create and implement any special pay, (and they usually screw it up) the DOD decided the easiest way to reward/compensate frequently deployed Guard and Reserve soldiers was extra leave time.

First, a little background.  Leave time in the military is similar to vacation time at a civilian job.  For every month on active duty, you get 2.5 days of leave.  For active duty soldiers, this leave time is what you use to go on week long or longer vacations.  For Guard or Reserve soldiers, the same principal holds, but with one caveat; when you are deployed to a combat zone, the only time you can use leave days is when you come home for the two week R&R leave that every soldier takes.

So for the average deployed National Guardsmen, you spend a year in uniform, which gets you 30 days of leave.  You only use 14 days for R&R leave, which means when you get home, you use the rest of your leave.  In effect, you get released from active duty, but you stay on the Army payroll for 2 more weeks.  Enter the Pentagon intent of PDMRA.  Guardsmen that had seen multiple deployments would get extra leave days to use at the end of their deployment.  The more you were deployed, the more special leave you accrue and at a faster rate.  So it is not 'overtime pay' as the Strib claims, nor is it a 'bonus' as Congressman Kline says.

The problem?  Timing.  The Red Bulls got home from Iraq in July-early August of 2007.  The rules and guidelines for PDMRA were not put into place until October of 2007.  Because I stayed on active duty for a few months after Iraq with a handful of other soldiers, we didn't come off active duty until after the new policy was in effect.  So I was one of the first soldiers in the MN Guard to benefit from PDMRA, which is now generally called admin leave.  My benefit?  66 extra days of leave, or two months of being paid my regular Army pay while I was not on duty. 

So what is the problem for the rest of the Red Bulls?  Red tape.  Soldiers can only use leave time while on active duty.  So once the Red Bulls came off active duty in August (when their regular leave was used up) the Army had no system in place to call them back to active duty for the purpose of awarding them the admin leave.  Putting a soldier on active duty, even just for leave, has some serious consequences.

Soldiers on active duty for leave are the same as regular active duty.  If the red Bulls were put on orders to be paid their admin leave time, they would be liable under the UCMJ if the committed a crime, meaning the military could try them as well as a civilian court.  They would also be entitled to medical care, as any soldier on active duty is so entitled.  Soldiers on active duty, even if it is for leave, are restricted by a host of military restrictions.  And on the flip side, the Army is responsible for soldiers on active duty, even if it is for leave.  So this issue is far from as simple as either the Strib or Rep Kline makes it seem.  To make things more complicated, many soldiers got out of the Guard after getting home because their enlistments were up.  You can't call a soldier to active duty if they are no longer in the military.

So why not just pay them the money they would get from the leave time?  Again, not as simple as it seems.  The Army does have a system in place for 'selling' leave days back to the Army.  In effect, you are forgoing your leave (vacation) time in order to get extra pay.  But here is the problem, and something that most civilians don't understand.  If you sell your leave time to the Army, you get less money than if you use the leave time.  Let me explain.

I am a Staff Sergeant, which for pay purposes makes me an E-6,  (Enlisted soldier, pay grade 6) so I will use my situation to demonstrate.  The Army pays in different categories, but here are the biggest ones for this issue; base pay and housing allowance

An E-6 with over 16 years of service makes a base pay (base salary if you will) of $3435.60.  That income is taxable.  But the Army also pays what are called allowances, special pay offsets to make sure that soldiers in different circumstances get paid differently.  So soldiers also get paid a housing allowance if they don't live in post housing (all deployed soldiers get this allowance if they maintain a residence, i.e. married soldiers or anyone who owns a house), and soldiers with families get paid more for housing.  The housing allowance for an E-6 with family in Owatonna is $1272.  That money is NOT taxable.  There are a couple of other allowances that are also paid to most deployed Guardsmen, but I wont confuse you any further with them, other than to mention that they are non-taxable income as well.

So back to the problem.  Why doesn't the Army just pay the Red Bulls for their earned admin leave time?  Because Army regulations say that when you sell leave back to the Army, you only get base pay.  No other allowances are included.  So using my example, I could have sold my leave to the Army for $6870 (base pay x 63 days), but I collected over $3000 more ($1272 x 63 days plus the other smaller allowances) by staying on active duty to use my leave time.  $6870 or $9870?  Which sounds better?  And keep in mind that the extra $3000 in allowances is non-taxable income.

Hence the problem for the Army.  If it calls the Red Bulls to active duty and pays the soldiers on leave, the Army is on the hook for anything that happens to those soldiers while on duty (as well as the soldiers being on the hook with the Army for anything they do while on active duty).  If the Army gives the Red Bulls their admin leave and lets them sell it right back, those soldiers will be losing almost 35% of the value of the leave.

This is a classic example of the Army trying to do the right thing and someone being caught in the gray area.  All deployed Guard and Reserve soldiers who came off active duty after October 2007 received their admin leave time just as they should.  This exact same situation occurred last year when the rules for the post 9/11 GI Bill were announced.  Soldiers that serve 20 years and retire can transfer their school bennies to the kids, but soldiers who retired before October of last year, when the new GI Bill was implemented, did not get the transfer benefits.  Greyhawk got caught in that situation.

Normally, I don't favor making endless exceptions for groups that were just on the wrong side of the timeline for implementation of a new benefit.  We can't grandfather in some people without doing the same for everyone.  But the case of the Red Bulls is unique.  The 1st BCT of the 34th Infantry Division has the dubious honor of having served the longest combat tour of any US military unit involved in the War on Terror.  6 months of training, and then 16 months in Iraq, with 4 of those months coming courtesy of the (incredibly successful) surge.  That 23 month total deployment will stand as the longest deployment of any Guard or Reserve unit, because partly in reaction to the Red Bull's marathon, all Guard and Reserve units that are deployed today are limited by the Pentagon to 12 total months. 

The Army needs to stop pushing red tape (that term is especially ironic here) and ask Congress for the authority to make full payment to the Red Bulls.  Some soldiers have since deployed again and have received their admin leave, a handful of us got it right away, and some soldiers are even now preparing for another deployment, at the end of which they will get their extra leave time.  But hundreds of the Red Bulls that served the marathon tour in Iraq have gotten out of the National Guard, and cannot be called to active duty anymore.  So the only way for the Army to make this right is to ask Congress for the authority to make special payments directly to the individual soldiers involved.

But the StarTribune needs to cut out the hype and the misleading terms and realize that the Red Bulls are veterans, not victims.


Anonymous said...

You have done an excellent job defining the pay and the problem.

With all due respect, I am no longer intrested in the DOD's dillema! It has been almost 3 years since we returned, and it is just over a year untill we leave again. They have had plenty of time to resolve this issue.

I think the Star Trib. Put it in the simplest terms they could (and with military pay that is no easy task)

I give a thumbs up to the Star Trib and KSTP for running with the story. Its about time someone did!!

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MIDiver67 said...

Thanks for the article. I agree that it's important to get the information correct but I also am glad that the Strib and KSTP put it out.

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If yer interested in knowing the latest updates about PDMRA, Updates affect 2007 deployments.

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Anonymous said...

ok here is my status. i was active deployed twice in 03-04 and then 05-06. right after i joined the national guard 06-present. i'm currently deployed and in titl 10 status. our deployment started in oct of 09 so we'll be here till around sep of 2010. would i qualify for this extra leave. it's my third deployment and just takes a lot out my family and me.
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