Hawaii Congressman Neil Neil Abercrombie wants to hold hearings one of the oldest scams in the military: the well-timed trip into a combat zone that entitles the service member to two months' of danger pay and tax exclusions. Abercrombie, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee air and land forces subcommittee, accuses mid-level and senior personnel of planning trips into Iraq and Afghanistan that have little purpose--other than qualifying those service members for danger pay and tax benefits.
“I am outraged,” he said in a Tuesday interview with the Military Times. “This has got to stop. There are people out there being shot at every day for real, not for some made-up reason. There are people cheating, and they know who they are if they are making up reasons to visit the war zone just for the benefits.
“I am talking here about honor. How much is your honor worth?” he said. “If you went in a combat zone just for the pay on a made-up mission, it is not the same thing as being in a combat zone.”
To prevent abuses of the danger pay benefit, Mr. Abercrombie wants to restructure the current system, switching to a daily rate or establishing a minimum number of days before personnel become eligible. Currently, military personnel can receive the full danger pay allowance ($225 a month) for any amount of time spent in a combat zone,-or (in some cases) by simply flying over the same territory, even if ground fire can't reach your aircraft. The trip also exempts military pay from federal income taxes for the same period.
Mr. Abercrombie deserves credit for calling attention to a little scam that's been going on since the danger pay benefit (and its qualification criteria) were created. Go to any war zone, and you'll find an influx of mid-level and senior personnel toward the end of the month, with the same folks usually departing after the first day of the next month. Under the present system, that gives them credit for two months of danger pay and tax exclusions. Officially, the visitors are "there" for legitimate purposes--usually some sort of meeting or inspection--but the timing of their trips is suspect, to say the least.
My only problem with Congressman Abercrombie is the (apparent) selective nature of his outrage. He's been a member of the House since 1991, a period which includes the Clinton Foreign Policy Roadshow of the 1990s, as well as the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The same type of abuses were also present during our military presence in the Balkans.
As an aircrew member during Operation Deny Flight, I spent a couple of tours as an operations advisor at NATO's Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) in Vicenza, Italy. As part of my CAOC duties, I routinely reviewed passenger manifests for military flights into Italy, Bosnia and Croatia, looking for anyone who might be planning a visit to my unit. The number of flights--and passengers--always increased at the end of each month. The travelers and their itinerary were completely predictable; mid-level and senior officers and senior NCOs, flying into Italy for a day of shopping (ahem) meetings, then flying on to Zagreb or Sarajevo before returning to EUCOM or NATO headquarters. And, the same personnel would show up again in 30 or 60 days, just in time to qualify for more danger pay, and extend their tax exemptions.
From what I can gather, Mr. Abercrombie (who entered the House in 1991) voiced no objections to the abuses of danger pay and combat zone tax exclusions that existed during that era. But then again, that was a period when his party occupied the White House and ran the Defense Department. If the Congressman from Hawaii is genuinely interested in "honesty," and "honor," he should examine payments (and pay records) for the past 15 years, and not merely limit his probe to current conflicts. By hook or crook, Abercrombie has stumbled into one of the longest-running military scams, a practice that began well before those recent, end-of-the-month trips into Baghdad and Kabul.