Troops need protection during ‘bonus limbo’

By Tom Philpott

Pentagon officials and congressional staffs are working together to try to ensure that thousands of bonus-qualified recruits, and thousands of careerists ready to re-enlist, aren’t harmed financially by the current suspension of bonuses and incentive pays.

Bonuses and many special pays stopped Jan. 1 because President Bush vetoed the fiscal 2008 defense authorization bill. He refused to sign HR 1585 because of a provision that could expose assets of the fledgling Iraqi government to U.S. lawsuits from victims of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Until the $696 billion defense policy bill is revised, passed and signed, or Congress clears separate legislation restoring bonus and pay authorities, the services must operate without key force management tools including all enlistment, re-enlistment and retention bonuses being paid to fill critical skills.

Capitol Hill staffers and Defense officials have been brain storming how to rewrite the delayed defense bill to be certain it fully protects recruits and service members from unintended consequences of the bonus limbo. They want to make sure, for example, that suspended bonuses and special pays are made retroactive to Jan. 1 for everyone, whether infantrymen and health care professionals or aviators and nuclear-trained officers.

Defense officials also are pressing Congress to protect tax breaks for service members who might be unable to re-enlist before returning this month from Iraq and Afghanistan. Special language could be necessary to allow war zone tax exemptions to apply to bonus contracts whose signing must be delayed until members return to home bases and bonus authority is restored.

This will be a concern, for example, for re-enlistment-eligible soldiers in two Army brigade combat teams — the 1st and 2nd Brigades of the 1st Cavalry Division — who are returning to Fort Hood, Texas, from Iraq this month.

“The language we’re working on with the Congress would protect those situations so there would be no disadvantage accruing to anyone,” said Bill Carr, deputy under secretary of defense for military personnel policy.

“We’ve got to figure out a way that members aren’t harmed” a congressional staff member agreed. Before him, he said, were many proposed revisions to protect personnel from any negative veto effect.

With no authorization bill, the military’s pay raise appearing in mid-January checks will be 3 percent, not 3.5 percent as passed by Congress.

Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: