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When a bonus isn’t a bonus, Murray fires

LES BLUMENTHAL; The News Tribune
Published: October 16th, 2005 12:01 AM
http://www.thenewstribune.com/news/local/story/5258954p-4774126c.html

WASHINGTON – The Pentagon has reneged on its offer to pay a $15,000 bonus to members of the National Guard and Army Reserve who agree to extend their enlistments by six years, according to Sen. Patty Murray (D-Seattle).

The bonuses were offered in January to Active Guard and Reserve and military technician soldiers who were serving overseas. In April, the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs ordered the bonuses stopped, Murray said.

“This is outrageous,” the senator said in a telephone interview. “It makes me angry that this administration has broken another promise to our troops.”

A Pentagon spokeswoman, Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke, confirmed the bonuses had been canceled, saying they violated Pentagon policies because they duplicated other programs. She said Guard and Reserve members would be eligible for other bonuses.

Krenke said some soldiers had been paid the re-enlistment bonuses, but she was unsure how many or whether the money would have to be repaid. Murray’s office said that as far as it knew, no active Guard or Reserve members had received the bonuses.

A Murray spokeswoman, Alex Glass, said Krenke’s explanation was unacceptable.

“They can spin it anyway they want,” Glass said. “But this is a promise they are trying to explain away.”

The bonus offer was part of the Pentagon’s effort to retain Guard and Reserve members at a time of declining enlistments in the regular Army.

Army officials have said they face the toughest recruiting climate since 1973, when the draft was dropped and replaced with an all-volunteer military.

Roughly 3,400 members of the Washington National Guard’s 81st Armor Brigade were serving in Iraq at the time the bonuses were offered.

The bonuses were tax-free because they involved soldiers stationed overseas.

“As in the private sector, bonuses are quite effective in keeping talented people with high demand skills,” Krenke said in an e-mail response to questions.

Murray, a leading Capitol Hill critic of management of the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs, said she didn’t know why the bonuses were dropped but suspected it was connected to the tight federal budget.

“It feels like every day I wake up to something else gone wrong,” she said. “And it all goes back to this administration not planning adequately for the Iraq war.”

Krenke said the decision to end the bonus program had nothing to do with budgeting.

The senator said she first learned the bonus program had been canceled this summer from members of the Washington National Guard. In late August she wrote officials of the Pentagon’s National Guard Bureau demanding an immediate explanation.

The decision to cancel the bonuses had caused “tremendous uncertainty” among Guard members who had been counting on the money after they decided to re-enlist, Murray said in her August letter.

In a two-paragraph reply to Murray, Donna Warren, the National Guard Bureau’s congressional liaison, said the bonus program had been scrubbed by order of the Office of Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs. Warren said it had been discovered that Defense Department regulations prohibited such bonuses, but she offered no elaboration.

Warren said the bonuses remained a “critical issue” and that officials of the Guard bureau were “aggressively engaged” in discussions with the defense secretary’s office.

Murray said Warren’s response was inadequate. Earlier this month she wrote Thomas Hall, assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs. Murray asked not only for a further explanation, but also asked Hall to reverse himself and reinstate the bonus program.

Krenke said the Pentagon would have no comment on Murray’s letter to Hall.

Murray said she expected a quick response and would pursue the matter further if Hall’s response were insufficient.

Les Blumenthal
lblumenthal@mcclatchydc.com