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Army Revokes Pay Raise for World War II 'Eskimo Scouts'

Lucy Kiunya pins an Alaska Territorial Guard medal on the collar of husband, Paul Kiunya Sr., in honor of his voluntary service in World War II.
Lucy Kiunya pins an Alaska Territorial Guard medal on the collar of husband, Paul Kiunya Sr., in honor of his voluntary service in World War II. (Courtesy Of Jerry Walton)

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By Joe Davidson
Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Paul Kiunya Sr. looks back on his early military days with pride.

He was just 16 when the now 78-year-old retiree joined the Alaska Territorial Guard during World War II. Traveling by kayak in the summer and dog sled when snow covered the ground, Kiunya and his fellow guardsmen were among the nation's first line of defense from the Japanese.

It took a long time, but seven months ago, the Pentagon gave the guardsmen active duty credit for their service in the territorial force. That resulted in an increase in their military retirement pay.

But what Uncle Sam gives, he can take away -- and so he has.

With a letter that amounts to "Oops," the Army informed 27 former guardsmen that the pay increase was a mistake.

"I regret to inform you of the correction of a recent error that affects your current military retirement pay," begins the letter sent last week by Brig. Gen. Reuben D. Jones, the Army adjutant general.

Kiunya, who also served 22 years in the National Guard, says that means he will lose about $380 a month.

He lives in the village of Kipnuk, Alaska, barely a dot on the map in the southwest corner of the state. It's a poor place where few people have college degrees. About one third of its 700 residents are unemployed, and the median household income is 30 percent less than the statewide figure.

"Sometimes in a month, I'm completely broke," said Kiunya, a former Bureau of Indian Affairs employee. "Everything is expensive in Alaska. Sometimes my light bill comes up to almost $500; it's always over $400 a month."

The pay mistake occurred when the Defense Department misinterpreted a section of federal law that says members of the territorial guard who were honorably discharged should be "considered active duty for the purposes of all laws administered by the Secretary."

The secretary, in this case, was not the secretary of Defense, as officials originally thought, but the secretary of Veterans Affairs, said Lt. Col. Richard McNorton of the Army's human resources command. After the retirement pay was increased, "a subsequent legal review determined that service in the [Alaska Territorial Guard] ATG may only be counted" for veterans benefits and not "for the purpose of calculating military retirement pay," he wrote in an e-mail to the Federal Diary.

To Kiunya, "it seems like the government is putting the former ATG in the garbage can."

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