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Deployments shut some troops out of HAP program

Apr. 14, 2011 - 10:53AM   |   Last Updated: Apr. 14, 2011 - 10:53AM  |  
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A Defense Department policy on a benefit to help distressed military homeowners has shut out some troops because of the timing of their deployments, according to an Air Force officer and Army officials who are supporting his appeal.

"My deployment hurt me to the tune of $150,000" in potential government assistance, said Air Force Lt. Col. John Born.

The Homeowners Assistance Program was set up to help certain categories of military homeowners, including those on permanent change-of-station orders who are struggling to sell homes that have lost value.

But to qualify for assistance under the PCS category, military homeowners must have received PCS orders by Sept. 30, 2010.

Born was supposed to receive PCS orders in the summer or fall but was deployed to Afghanistan for six months. The cutoff date fell squarely in the middle of Born's deployment — and the Air Force does not allow PCS orders to be issued while a service member is deployed.

Defense officials are considering his appeal, forwarded by the Army to defense officials on Dec. 2. The Army Corps of Engineers administers the HAP program.

As passed by Congress, the law actually allows defense officials to extend assistance to those who receive PCS orders by Sept. 30, 2012, assuming they meet other requirements. But defense officials moved up the cutoff date by two years on their own because of funding issues.

Others eligible for HAP help —wounded warriors, surviving spouses and those affected by base realignment and closure actions — are not restricted to that cutoff date.

The majority of people eligible for the assistance are in the PCS category. The Army has proposed a policy change to allow these homeowners to be eligible for expanded HAP benefits, provided that they:

• Were forward-deployed from their primary duty stations between March 1, 2010, and August 31, 2010.

• Received PCS orders within 45 days after they returned.

• Meet all other program requirements.

"This situation adversely impacts those very service members to whom our nation owes the most, and subjects them to financial hardships they would have been relieved from had they not completed their forward deployments," stated an Army point paper sent to defense officials.

A decision on the policy change is expected in the next week or so, according to a defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity. It's taken so long, he said, because officials have been trying to figure out how they could help people like Born.

"We can't have different rules for one person ... we would be violating regulations," the official said. "And if we change the regulations, we would help everyone. The question is whether there's enough money."

Defense officials don't know how many people are in the same situation; meanwhile, the $855 million originally provided by Congress to support the expanded HAP is running out.

The Army point paper noted that there are "relatively few" people in Born's situation.

Born says he knows of two others, though he also suspects the number is low.

He said he wonders why defense officials couldn't set an application end date that would give currently deployed service members time to apply.

"I enjoy serving," Born said. "But why are we making it more difficult for deployed personnel? Deployment is hard enough on a service member without worrying about losing benefits."

Born received his PCS orders when he returned to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., in January. He's not sure what he's going to do with his house, since it's worth about $150,000 less than what he owes on it, he said.

"If I was previously qualified before the deployment, I still should be," Born said. "If there's no money, that's another issue. But to be eliminated from a DoD program because of deployment is unfathomable to me."

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