NDN NEWZ: Vets' Pay Raise an "Oops!"
They were Alaskan Natives, many as young as 16 years old. By summer, they travelled by kayak; in the winter, by dog sled. They were an important line of defense against the Japanese during World War II. They served their country in the wilds of the Alaskan islands and mainland with no glory...and no pay. They were called the Alaska Territorial Gaurd. And although they weren't paid during the war and still receive little recognition, seven months ago the Pentagon made a move to right that wrong: they finally gave the gaurdsmen active duty credit for their service, which came with an increase in their military retirement pay.
Or so they thought...until they checked the mail last week.
"I regret to inform you of the correction of a recent error that affects your current military retirement pay," begins the letter sent last week by Brig. Gen. Reuben D. Jones, the Army adjutant general.
It seems the Defense Department misinterpreted a section of federal law that says members of the territorial guard who were honorably discharged should be "considered active duty for the purposes of all laws administered by the Secretary." The problem being that the secretary, in this case, was not the secretary of Defense, as officials originally thought, but the secretary of Veterans Affairs. According to Lt. Col. Richard McNorton of the Army's human resources command, after the retirement pay was increased, "a subsequent legal review determined that service in the [Alaska Territorial Guard] ATG may only be counted" for veterans benefits and not "for the purpose of calculating military retirement pay." In light of this oversight, Col. McNorton says Defense Department officials are working with Congress to enact legislation to address this issue and that the Army is "anxious to get this resolved."
Put into blunt terms: oops!
Paul Kiunya, aged 78, is one of the gaurdsmen whose pay increase has now been unceremoniously taken away. Like many of the surviving gaurdsmen, he lives in a remote area with high unemployment and rampant poverty. Kiunya, who also served 22 years in the National Guard and was once a BIA employee, says this means he will lose about $380 a month. It's $380 he can't afford to lose.
"Sometimes in a month, I'm completely broke," said Kiunya. "Sometimes my light bill comes up to almost $500; it's always over $400 a month...it seems like the government is putting the former ATG in the garbage can."
He's not the only one outraged by the "mistake." Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) addressed the Senate last week: "What kind of a government, what kind of a Cruella, could cut retirement benefits to a group of Eskimos in their eighties, in the dead of an Alaskan winter, and say: 'Sorry, there is nothing we can do'...It's time for some soul-searching at the Pentagon."
The Alaskan delegation to Congress sent President Obama a letter on Friday, asking for his help. The letter said the "Eskimo Scouts," as the guardsmen were then known, "shot down Japanese air balloons, rescued downed airmen, protected the Lend-Lease route from America to Russia, and engaged in combat with the enemy." (Although what, if any, combat is unclear: Murkowski's office claims the gaurdsmen tracked but didn't find Japanese troops on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea.)
And now, in their senior years, with many of these unsung heroes living well below the poverty line...the money the Army has seen fit to pay them, they now want to take away.
"It is a tragedy because most of the people I am talking about, most of these gentlemen, are Eskimos -- among the first people of the United States, members of a class of people to whom the United States government has broken its promises time and time again," Sen. Murkowski said.
Congress, Pentagon, President Obama: don't break this promise. Not this time. These men served their country, seeking to protect it from a foreign power in wartime: a foreign power that had already attacked the U.S. and it was believed it could and would do so again. They were warriors in the great traditions of their ancestors, and they were soldiers in the great tradition of the United States Army.
They deserve their active duty pay. They earned it.
Don't turn your backs on them now. Keep the promise.
Labels: Native American