Monday, February 23, 2009

Soldiers still waiting for tour bonuses

Soldiers still waiting for tour bonuses

By Gregg Zoroya, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has not started complying with a law requiring the payment of monthly bonuses of up to $500 to soldiers forced to remain on active duty beyond their enlistment period, military officials said.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman acknowledged the five-month delay in paying the bonuses and said the Defense Department is working on a plan to start paying the almost 13,000 soldiers currently under the Army's stop-loss orders. Although Defense Secretary Robert Gates wants to end the policy, the number of soldiers affected has risen since the middle of 2007.

Congress added $72 million to pay for the bonuses in its plan for the budget year that started Oct. 1. The money was to be paid after the Pentagon submitted a plan outlining how the payments would be made.

But no plan has been provided, Rob Blumenthal, a spokesman for the Senate Appropriations Committee, said Friday.

"It is unacceptable that the Department (of Defense) has failed to construct a plan for issuing these payments," said Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., who chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense. "Stop loss is nothing more than a backdoor draft, and … if the Defense Department is going to insist on holding servicemembers under stop-loss orders, then they should be compensated for their service."

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Paul Rieckhoff, executive director and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said the Pentagon is "dragging its feet" on implementing the pay bonus.

Since 2002, the military has relied on stop loss to keep its most skilled and experienced troops in the service. The Army is the only service that has used it in the past five years, according to a Congressional Research Service report released last month. The number of soldiers affected by stop loss peaked in 2005 at 15,758.

Gates first directed the Army to minimize the use of stop loss in January 2007. However, after falling to 8,540 in May 2007, the number of soldiers on stop loss has risen to almost 13,000 in December 2008, Army records show.

That's almost 10% of the total number of soldiers deployed in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Congressional Research Service report shows.

Gates directed Army leaders in January to present a comprehensive plan for ending the stop-loss policy, Whitman said. Gates is due to be briefed on those plans this week, Whitman said.

"Senior officials are disappointed that the recent trend has been going in the wrong direction with respect to the numbers (of soldiers currently stop-lossed)," Whitman said.

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