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Pay and benefits upgrade

Package includes revamped GI Bill, 3.9 percent pay raise and more

Oct. 16, 2008 - 03:41PM   |   Last Updated: Oct. 16, 2008 - 03:41PM  |  
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The package of military pay and benefits improvements for 2009 took shape earlier this year with approval of a new and generous GI Bill.

The package now gets better as lawmakers have completed their annual defense policy bill, which focuses on keeping military pay competitive with wages in the private sector and increasing bonuses targeted at people with critically needed skills.

The 2009 Defense Authorization Aill, signed by President Bush on Oct. 14, also improves travel benefits, including a boost in lodging reimbursements for military families moving to new duty stations and a long-sought allowance for military spouses to ship professional equipment at government expense.

Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., the House Armed Services Committee chairman who helped craft the final compromise bill, said it is important to service members and their families for what it includes — and for what it precludes.

"To improve the quality of life for our forces and their families, the agreement provides a 3.9 percent pay raise for the troops, which is 0.5 percent more than the president's budget request," Skelton said. "The agreement also preserves important health care benefits by prohibiting fee increase in Tricare and the Tricare pharmacy program, and creating new preventive care health initiatives to improve the readiness of our force."

Steve Strobridge, government relations director for the Military Officers Association of America, said lawmakers deserve credit for focusing on several health care issues, and for helping spouses build portable careers and ship professional goods at government expense to a new duty station.

"We are very happy to see preventive care being emphasized and for Congress to not just freeze Tricare fees, but to also order the Pentagon to recalculate Tricare fees for reservists — something that could lead to their fees being cut by 50 percent in January," said Strobridge, who is also a key adviser to the Military Coalition, a group of more than 30 military-related associations that share a common legislative agenda on personnel issues.

"Would we have liked to see more in the bill?" Strobridge asked. "Sure, but that does not mean we are not grateful for what we got."

In addition to the defense act's pay-and-benefits increases and the Post-9/11 GI Bill that will take effect Aug. 1, troops also can expect increases food and housing allowances in January.

The exact increases will not be known until December, but the basic allowance for subsistence should increase by about 5.9 percent and basic allowance for housing, which varies by rank and location, would increase by an average of 3.8 percent, according to the Department of Labor's measurement of average increases in the cost of goods and services.

Here are some of the key pay-and-benefits items in the 2009 Defense Authorization Act.

Pay raise

Basic pay and drill pay would increase 3.9 percent, marking the eighth consecutive year in which military raises are slightly higher than average private-sector wage growth. The increase would be 0.5 percentage point more than both the Bush administration's request and last year's average increase in private-sector pay. As a result, the gap between military and civilian pay — measured by comparing raises since 1981 — would shrink to 2.9 percent.

Who: All active-duty members and drilling National Guard and Reserve members.

When: Effective Jan. 1, with the raise first appearing in mid-month checks.

Temporary Lodging Expense

Daily reimbursement for living in temporary lodging during the stateside portion of a permanent change of station move would increase by $180, to a new maximum of $290. The full reimbursement would be paid when a member stays in temporary lodging with dependents. A member in temporary housing without dependents or a dependent staying alone would receive 65 percent of the maximum, regardless of their actual costs.

The maximum number of days of TLE authorized — 10 in most circumstances and up to 60 in emergencies such as evacuations for natural disasters — would remain unchanged.

Who: Members with dependents who are moving between bases where at least one base is in the lower 48 states.

When: Effective when the bill was signed on Oct. 14.

Family separation allowance for dual-service couples

When both husband and wife are in the military, the couple would receive two payments of family separation allowance if they have dependents and both are deployed at the same time. That would be the full $250 monthly allowance for each member.

To receive the payment, the couple must have resided together with dependents before the deployments began.

Who: Dual-service couples when both are deploying, which could include mobilized National Guard and Reserve members.

When: Effective Oct. 1, 2008.

Bonus and special pay extensions

A large collection of bonuses, special pays and incentive pays that were due to expire Dec. 31 are extended for another year, until the end of 2009.

They include active and reserve enlistment and re-enlistment bonuses, special pay for assignment to high-priority units, officer accession bonuses and special pays, including those for health care professionals, nuclear-qualified officers and incentives to convert military occupational specialties.

Who: About one-third of service members get these incentives.

When: Extends current programs.

Bonus increases

Several bonuses increases are included:

ĺ Nurse accession bonuses would double to a maximum of $20,000 and nurse officer candidates could receive a monthly stipend totaling up to $30,000 a year. The current stipend is limited to $1,200 per year.

ĺ Nuclear-qualified officers would receive nuclear officer continuation pay for agreeing to a three-year commitment. Four- or five-year commitments previously were required from some officers.

ĺ A new $12,000 annual bonus would be created for officer candidates in training for critically needed foreign languages or cultural studies. A second pilot program pays foreign language proficiency bonuses to Reserve members.

ĺ Accession bonuses of up to $400,000 and retention bonuses of up to $25,000 per year would be created for psychologists.

Who: Bonuses would be targeted to specific groups, but no one is guaranteed the money.

When: Effective when the bill was signed on Oct. 14, but the services will determine whether and when to offer extra incentives for service.

Income replacement insurance

An income replacement plan for reservists who have frequent or extended mobilizations was due to expire at the end of 2008 but is extended through Dec. 31, 2009. The benefit pays up to $3,000 a month based on the difference between military wages and how much a person made in his civilian job before mobilization.

Monthly military pay must be at least $50 less than civilian salary before income replacement payments begin.

Who: Applies to involuntarily mobilized National Guard or Reserve members who meet one of three thresholds: completing 547 continuous days of active service, completing 730 cumulative days of service in a 1,826-day period, or being called up for involuntary mobilization of 180 days or longer within 180 days of a previous involuntary mobilization that lasted 180 days or longer.

When: Extends a current program.

Household goods shipments for spouses

When a military family makes a permanent change-of-station move, the nonmilitary spouse may be permitted to ship up to 500 pounds of professional books or equipment in addition to the family's weight allowance.

The law does not define professional equipment, leaving it to the services to decide what it will ship.

Who: All spouses would have the same weight allowance.

When: Travel regulations would have to change before the additional shipment is available, a process that could take months.

Tuition assistance for spouses

The Pentagon is given wide discretion to create a new program to provide tuition assistance for military spouses to help them get or keep a career that allows them to find jobs wherever a military family might move. Tuition assistance, similar to tuition aid provided to active-duty service members, would let spouses take college classes or training leading to a credential or license. Payment amounts and what courses would be covered are left up to the Pentagon.

Who: Spouses of active-duty members would be eligible as long as they are not service members and are not legally separated at the time they receive the aid.

When: Although authorized when the bill was signed on Oct. 14, no benefits will be paid until a formal program is announced.

Pet evacuation

When military families are evacuated from a foreign area, the government would pay for the shipment and quarantine costs of family household pets. The government could provide the shipment or the member could be reimbursed for the costs. The number, type and size of pets that can be shipped will be determined by new military regulations.

Who: People affected by natural disasters or civil unrest while stationed overseas.

When: Authorized when the bill became law on Oct. 14, but regulations would have to be written before shipment is allowed.

Special survivor indemnity allowance

A $50 allowance approved last year to partly make up for the offset in survivor benefits required of those receiving annuities from both the Defense Department and Department of Veterans Affairs would be extended to instances in which a service member died on active duty. Previously, it applied only to deaths of military retirees who had paid monthly premiums for military survivor benefits.

Who: Applies to survivors receiving military survivor benefits and VA dependency and indemnity compensation.

When: Effective Oct. 1, 2008, the date the $50 monthly allowance began to be paid. Retroactive payments would be made for survivors of people who died on active duty.

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