quot;Support our troopsquot; is more than a platitude

by Beacon Staff • April 11, 2007

If coverage of the Iraq War is overshadowing the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, where The New York Times reports al-Qaeda is being rejuvenated by profits from the booming opium trade, reporting from the Middle East has virtually eclipsed the American military presence in the Balkans.

Last month, however, the jeopardy of 500 Massachusetts National Guardsmen on an ongoing peacekeeping mission in Kosovo made a small blip in The Boston Globe and, later, The Weekly Dig.

Both publications reported the Pentagon was considering lifting the mission's "combat zone" classification as part of an annual review.

Had the reclassification been approved, it would have pulled the financial rug from under the 29th Infantry Division, which comprises almost a third of the American force there.

The details of such an action are shameful.

In an online interview with The Beacon, a specialist in the unit said the soldiers would have lost their "hostile fire" pay, about $225 a month, lost another $400 worth of tax breaks each month, and been stripped of their veteran's status and other benefits, despite having been stationed in the Balkans for five months.

The specialist wished to remain anonymous due to military policies regarding talking to the media.

Their tour is scheduled to last until December, at which point each soldier would have lost about $6,000.

Adding insult to injury, each soldier would have had to foot his or her own $1,000 bill for the flight home.

In late March, the Pentagon rightly decided Kosovo is still a combat zone. The Globe reported a spokesman refused to reveal more about the process or the decision.

And although the right decision was ultimately made in this case, what does it say about how our soldiers are treated that the Pentagon came so close to throwing them under the tank?

Perhaps the Defense Department was swayed by the deadly riots in Kosovo's capital, the bombings in Vitina, the largest city in the Massachusetts unit's sector, or the gunfights with drug traffickers reported by The Globe.

Perhaps it was because the Massachusetts congressional delegation and Gov. Deval Patrick made public overtures to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates asking him to retain the classification.

Or maybe the Army didn't want to answer the obvious question begged by such a move: if it's not a combat zone, why can't the soldiers come home?

The Pentagon, by no means a paragon of fiscal responsibility, should certainly be looking for ways to more efficiently spend the hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars Congress allots it each year. Slashing soldiers' benefits, however, is the last avenue they should be exploring, especially when those soldiers are still on active duty overseas.

And they should never consider revoking a soldier's veterans status or make him pay for his ticket home, no matter the cost. Never mind the morbid message sent to soldiers when the Pentagon won't even guarantee the last leg of their tour. Never mind the petty and ungrateful message sent when the military denies soldiers the status and benefits pursuant to those who have served in combat.

The fact is the 29th Infantry Division was ordered into harm's way in the Balkans, and to now hand them a bill for the return flight borders on extortion.

According to the specialist, the unit's medic wrote to him in an e-mail that, between the pay cut and supporting a wife and children back home, he might not have been able to afford the flight.

Many more of the Guardsmen left families in Massachusetts. For them, the rumor of a pay cut began spreading through Camp Bondsteel in late February was literally demoralizing. It generated more of the one thing combat zone soldiers have in full supply: anxiety.

The specialist, 19, said he wasn't hit nearly as hard as those soldiers who needed the $6,000 they would have lost to pay their family's bills.

"Some of us had the feeling, 'If it happens, I'll worry about it then.' You could tell it had an effect on other people," he wrote. "Especially the guys with families back home."

The soldiers had banked on combat pay because they entered a combat zone with orders to restore law and order. If their mission was to quell violence, it seems absurd to turn around and punish them because their sector had become too peaceful.

The Pentagon's policy for reclassifying combat zones is backward. Even boiled down to the most pragmatic standards, it provides disincentive for soldiers if they know the completion of their mission will give the Defense Department an excuse to slash their wages.

Instead, they deserve fair pay and benefits for the work they do and the sacrifices they make. They should expect every precaution taken for their safety while in combat and, afterwards, expect comprehensive health care.

If nothing else, soldiers should be guaranteed when the military punches a ticket to a combat zone, it's good for a roundtrip home.