Des Moines Register 03-21-07 Kosovo-bound troops could lose benefits

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Des Moines Register
03-21-07
Kosovo-bound troops could lose benefits
Proposal: Plan would cut combat pay, tax exemption and airfare
Impact: About $1,000 to $2,000 a month per soldier is at stake
By WILLIAM PETROSKI
REGISTER STAFF WRITER
The Pentagon is considering plans to cut off combat pay and some other benefits
for 330 Iowa National Guard troops headed to Kosovo, which could cost each
soldier an estimated $1,000 to $2,000 per month.
Until now, U.S. troops serving in Kosovo have received imminent-danger pay, a
tax exemption for income, and government-paid airfare for a trip home during
their tour, said retired Sgt. Maj. Frank Yoakum, legislative director for the Enlisted
Association of the National Guard. But families of National Guard troops now in
Kosovo have been told to expect those benefits to be cut off, effective April 1, he
said.
"The Department of Defense is pretty much saying, 'This is just a normal duty
station.' But there is still a propensity for danger and violence there," Yoakum
said.
The loss of pay for each soldier will vary, depending upon military status, he
added.
Maj. Stewart Upton, a Department of Defense spokesman in Washington, D.C.,
confirmed Tuesday that the combat zone tax exclusion and imminent-danger pay
were under review for soldiers serving in Kosovo. "The department will not
comment beyond that until the reviews are complete," he said.
The Iowa National Guard earlier this month alerted about 330 soldiers for duty in
Kosovo. They are expected to be mobilized in early to mid-summer, said Lt. Col
Gregory Hapgood Jr., the Iowa Guard's public affairs officer.
Most of the troops are from the 1st Battalion, 194th Field Artillery, from Fort
Dodge, Estherville, Algona and Storm Lake. They will be joined by soldiers from
Company A, 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry, based in Dubuque.
Kosovo, in southern Serbia, has a mixed population, but the majority of residents
are ethnic Albanians. A NATO-led international peacekeeping force has been in
Kosovo since 1999 under a U.N. mandate.
Violence still occurs in Kosovo, although the likelihood of Iowa troops becoming
engaged in direct combat is almost nil, said Christopher Ball, a political
science lecturer at Iowa State University. But if political talks break down over
the future of Kosovo, there is a chance rioting could occur, he added.
In March 2004, Iowa National Guard soldiers helped separate ethnic groups
during a two-day rampage by ethnic Albanian mobs through Serb areas,
Hapgood said. The violence left 28 dead, 600 injured, and hundreds of homes
and churches in ruins, according to wire service reports. Some windows were
smashed on Iowa National Guard Humvees responding to the incidents.
Master Sgt. Duff McFadden, an Iowa National Guard soldier who returned to
Camp Dodge in January 2006 after a one-year tour in Kosovo, said he was
always armed there and kept his bulletproof gear within close reach.
"It was relatively peaceful, but there was an underlying tension of sorts," he said.
Lt. Col Matt Pitstick, who will command the Iowa soldiers heading to Kosovo,
said Tuesday that some of his troops would be on their second deployment in the
past few years after having served in Afghanistan, in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and
on homeland security assignments.
The soldiers would like to receive the additional financial benefits for combat
duty, Pitstick said, and the money would provide more incentive for them to
endure the hardship of family separation.
Iowa's U.S. senators, Democrat Tom Harkin and Republican Charles Grassley,
have asked the Department of Defense about the pay issue, aides said Tuesday.
"Considering the dangers that appear to remain ... I hope the department will
carefully take into account all aspects and hear from the troops on the ground as
to what the status is," Grassley said.
Harkin believes the department needs to factor in uncertainty tied to a pending
U.N. decision on whether Kosovo will become formally independent of Serbia,
said Tom Reynolds, a Harkin aide.
"A vote against independence or a delay in the decision could spark a
resurgence of violence in the region, with our troops in the middle," he said.
Reporter William Petroski can be reached at (515) 284-8547 or
[email protected]
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