By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 4, 2007
Top Defense Department officials are considering a proposal to downgrade the combat status of U.S. forces who are part of the NATO peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, a decision that could cause the 1,500 U.S. soldiers currently deployed there to lose hundreds or even thousands of dollars each month in tax benefits and combat pay.
Such a decision, expected within the next month, would indicate that Pentagon officials do not believe Kosovo is still a combat zone, despite rising tensions in the Balkans over Kosovo's ongoing bid for independence and frequent U.S. missions that involve dangerous interdictions of smuggling rings, raids on armed extremist groups and encounters with improvised bombs.
It would also mean that hundreds of National Guardsmen and Reservists -- many from Virginia and Massachusetts who are on lengthy deployments away from their families and careers -- would lose a coveted tax exclusion that allows them to earn their pay tax-free while tacking on hundreds more in combat pay. They would also lose government-funded flights back to the United States when they take leave.
The issue puts a spotlight on soldiers who are part of a U.S. mission that began in 1999 but now receives little attention amid the worsening wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In recent interviews, soldiers and officers with the Virginia Army National Guard there said they put their lives on the line every day as part of the Kosovo Force, or KFOR -- and believe they deserve the benefits of combat pay.
"I stand to lose a decent chunk of money, and it's hard to believe that if that came through we'd get paid the same amount as someone who gets to go home to their wife and kids every day, gets to have a beer with dinner, and we're away for a year and a half," said Cpl. Will Larsen, 22, of Fairfax.
Larsen, an assistant infantry squad leader, put his senior year at Virginia Tech on hold to deploy. "It's a very important time here, and it's a big deal. The extremist ends on both sides are angry. . . . There are a lot of people back home who don't even know we're here. I just don't want them to forget about us."
Defense officials said all areas designated as combat zones are under a periodic review and that early policy recommendations from the Pentagon are that all areas in the Balkans -- designated as a combat zone under presidential order since March 24, 1999 -- be downgraded because of improved security there. Top military officers in Europe have officially disagreed, but they have been told the change could come as early as April 1.
"Combat Zone Tax Exclusion and Imminent Danger Pay are both under review for all designated areas," Maj. Stewart Upton, a Pentagon spokesman, said in an e-mail. "The Department will not comment beyond that until the reviews are complete."
John W. Warner (R-Va.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, on Friday sent a letter to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates urging him not to change the status of the more than 500 soldiers from Virginia who are deployed in Kosovo. Warner wrote that he thinks the soldiers "are performing dangerous missions on a daily basis."
"I respectfully request that you carefully consider the ramifications of any proposals that would adjust the combat zone designation for KFOR," Warner wrote, according to a copy of the letter provided to The Washington Post. "I am sure you agree that our soldiers and their families must receive appropriate compensation for their service."
The soldiers in Kosovo understand their work is not as dangerous as that of U.S. troops in Iraq, but they operate in a region where the government is shaky and where criminal enterprises use violence as a means of intimidation. Strife between Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo has calmed, but military commanders are concerned about the possibility for increased tension as a plan for Kosovo's statehood and separation from Serbia is scheduled to go before the U.N. Security Council next weekend.
[Yesterday, several thousand ethnic Albanians marched through Pristina, Kosovo's capital, and protested the proposed plan, saying it falls short of full independence, the Associated Press reported. No incidents were reported during the march, but last month a similar protest sparked a clash in which two demonstrators were killed by U.N. police.]
Brig. Gen. Douglas Earhart, commander of the 29th Infantry Division and leader of the Kosovo Multinational Task Force East, said that since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, the Kosovo mission has gone from a major military operation to one out of the limelight. But Earhart sees his region as vulnerable to radical Islamists because of high unemployment and porous borders, combined with reports of armed extremist ethic groups forming camps in rural outposts.
"This mission is absolutely critical now," Earhart said. "We stopped ethnic cleansing effectively. We started a peace-enforcement mission. We're doing now what we'd like to be doing in Iraq and Afghanistan."
His soldiers do daily patrols in local communities, seeking to get out in front of potential violence and to help foster tolerance between ethnic groups. Some soldiers have adopted a local school, organized ski trips for Serbian and Albanian youth, and helped fix crumbling infrastructure. They also conduct armed raids on smuggling hideouts and go after masked men who attack drivers at night.
Sgt. James Gerlinger, 22, of Lynchburg, Va., frequently works with children in Kosovo to help them set aside ethnic differences. Previously deployed for a year to the U.S. military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, he was told he was going into a combat zone for his deployment to Kosovo and is relying on the combat pay.
"We don't do this job for the money, and it's always mission first," Gerlinger said, adding that he is concerned about morale in his unit if the combat-tax exclusion is revoked. "I think a lot of times, any other mission than Iraq and Afghanistan is long forgotten. While it may not be as dangerous, the sacrifice here is still the same."
The Enlisted Association of the National Guard has contacted members of Congress because it is concerned that soldiers deployed to Kosovo could suffer financial hardship if they were to lose significant amounts of pay. "The families are counting on this every month to pay their bills," said Frank Yoakum, the group's legislative director. "And it's a morale killer. It says that what they were doing was important yesterday, but today not so much."
Should a status change occur, Staff Sgt. Stanley Britton, 34, of South Boston, Va., would probably lose about $1,000 of his monthly salary -- money he uses to support his wife and two daughters while he is away from his job as a sheriff's deputy in Halifax County. After a 2005 tour in Iraq, he said he enjoys helping the people in Kosovo because they trust U.S. forces and come to them for help. "It's an honor and a great opportunity to be a part of a team and to help people who are in dire need of assistance," Britton said. "And yes, I do think it's a combat zone here."