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Some Marines emerge from SDA cuts well, while others take a hit

Aug. 11, 2014 - 08:12PM   |  
A Marine security guard stands on the roof of one of the compounds inside the U.S. Embassy in Turkey. The special duty pay for MSGs will be capped at $75 per month starting in October as the Marine Corps trims $35 million over a five year period from manpower spending. (Adem Altan / AFP)
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Budget cuts are about to hit Marines' wallets in yet another way — special duty assignment pay.

Budget cuts are about to hit Marines' wallets in yet another way — special duty assignment pay.

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MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, VA. — Budget cuts are about to hit Marines’ wallets in yet another way — special duty assignment pay.

Collectively, Marines on special duty assignments will lose $35 million over the next five years. For individuals, the cuts can translate into as much as $3,600 over the course of a standard three-year SDA tour.

The cuts, which kick in Oct. 1, affect four of the five SDAs, including recruiter, drill instructor, combat instructors and Marine security guard. Only Marine Corps security force guards, who already take home the minimum amount of special duty assignment pay, will be spared from the cuts.

The changes to the Special Duty Assignment Pay Program, were outlined in Marine administrative message 380/14, signed Aug. 5.

SDAP is meant to offset the rigors of extraordinarily demanding jobs, but the cuts fall in line with shrinking budgets, even as the service expands SDAs under a mandate from Congress to add 1,000 embassy guards by 2016. With instability across entire regions of Africa and the Middle East — highlighted by the late July evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Libya — many of those MSGs will be sent to embassies in the world’s most volatile or hostile nations. Although some may be eligible for hardship duty pay or imminent danger pay, depending on the country or region they’re sent.

SDAP is designed to “compensate for assignment to duties designated as extremely demanding duties or duties demanding an unusual degree of responsibility,” according to Marine Corps order 7550.12R, which sets forth regulations for SDAP. “This monetary incentive helps obtain high quality enlisted members for designated special duty assignments and sustain adequate manning levels.”

Recruiters get the pay because they work long hours, often seven days a week, far from Marine installations, said Lt. Col. Rory Quinn, the section head of Enlisted Assignments at Manpower and Reserve Affairs here.

And while recruiting duty is largely recognized as one of the most stressful SDAs, MSGs spend long stretches overseas and DIs often live with the recruits they train for months at a time. Every one of them sacrifices time with family.

But, an equal reality is that the Marine Corps needs to get its fiscal house in order, and SDAP cuts account for budget pressures across the service.

“The special duty assignment pay budget profile was reduced by roughly $7 million per annum to meet budgetary constraints created by the current legislative fiscal environment,” said Maj. Thomas Dolan, the Manpower and Reserve Affairs spokesman.

Not everybody takes an even hit under the new rates. As a percentage of current SDAP, embassy guards are the biggest loser, seeing their extra pay over a three-year tour cut in half. In total dollars, however, they are losing the least, with the exception of Marine Corps security force guards whose pay is unchanged, but who were already making the minimum of SD-1 at $75 per month.

The other three SDAs are all losing $3,600, which accounts for varying percentages of the pay they currently receive.

Fortunately for those already in one of the five assignments, or those who begin an SDA before the start of fiscal 2015 on Oct. 1, they will be grandfathered and will continue to earn extra pay at current, higher monthly rates.

Any Marine who begins on or after Oct. 1, however, will earn the new reduced rate, according to the MARADMIN.

While it is at the service’s discretion to set SDAP levels, they are based on a Defense Department pay scale that ranges from SD-1, which provides an extra $75 per month to SD-6, which provides an extra $475 per month.

Most new SDA rates begin two levels lower than current rates as part of a graduated scale with a 12-month introductory rate, followed by a higher 24-month rate. For example, recruiters who now make SD-6 which is $475 per month will begin making SD-4 which is $300 per month for the first year of their three-year tour. Then, they will be bumped up to SD-5, which is $375 per month, for the remaining two years of their tour.

MSGs and Marine Corps security force guards, however, will not have a graduated pay scale. Those jobs were already on the low end of the pay spectrum, with security force guards already making the minimum and MSGs making SD-2. For that reason, MSGs only dropped one level, not two like most SDAs, and will thus not receive a bump up after 12 months.

“The current pay level for [Marine Corps Embassy Security Group] is pay level two,” Dolan said. “To apply the same pay adjustment as the other main assignment categories would mean that MCESG Marines would not receive any SDAP for the first 12 months.”

The reductions are sure to raise complaints from Marines who may have been looking forward to current rates, but the grandfather clause softens the blow.

Master Sgt. Orlando Reyes, the Marine Corps’ 2003 recruiter of the year, said he views the cuts as a reasonable part of the overarching efforts to save money across the service. It might be a different story if the cuts included Marines already on SDA assignments, because that would feel like a pay cut, said Reyes, who is now the operations chief for Headquarters and Support Battalion, Marine Corps Installations-East at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Their personal budgets are formulated on the rate they are now paid, which matters for Marines like recruiters who live out in town, often hundreds of miles away from all the benefits associated with proximity to a military installation.

But, because the new rates only apply to Marines who have not yet started to receive SDAP, he says it is still effectively a pay increase for them — albeit a smaller one.

“The new cats that are going out there, they shouldn’t be missing it because they are not used to it,” Reyes said. In the case of new recruiters, “It’s still an additional 300 to what you had before.”

While Reyes said he thinks new SDAP rates are reasonable, he was adamant that SDAs do warrant extra duty pay for a reason — they are tough.

“The rigors of recruiting — it’s an especially stressful job. You are only as good as your current month, no matter what you did last month,” he said in reference to the quotas recruiters are required to meet.

Asked if the reduction in SDAP would reduce the number of volunteers for recruiting duty, and with that lower the overall quality of the community, Reyes said probably not. About 700 of the 2,300 to 3,000 Marines assigned an SDA each year go to recruiting duty. Some volunteer, but many are ordered to meet the service’s needs. The high extra pay could be a draw for some, but the rigors of the job temper that.

“The pay is icing on top of the cake for those who want to be recruiters, and a little extra for those who don’t,” he said.

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