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."
He's not the only one upset with the mistake.
"What kind of a government, what kind of a Cruella, could cut retirement benefits to a group of Eskimos in their eighties, in the dead of an Alaskan winter, and say: 'Sorry, there is nothing we can do'?" Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) asked her colleagues in the Senate last week.
"It's time for some soul-searching at the Pentagon," she said.
McNorton said that the Army was "anxious to get this resolved" and that Defense Department officials were working with Congress on legislation to do just that. The Alaska delegation to Congress sent President Obama a letter on Friday asking for his help.
The letter said the "Eskimo Scouts," as the guardsmen were known, "shot down Japanese air balloons, rescued downed airmen, protected the Lend-Lease route from America to Russia, and engaged in combat with the enemy." That last item might be a bit of a stretch. Murkowski's office said the scouts tracked but didn't find Japanese troops on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea. Kiunya said he never actually saw any Japanese, but if he had: "I would give them hell."
But that's beside the point.
The guardsmen worked for no pay under harsh conditions to protect the United States from a foreign power that attacked this country. "It is a tragedy because most of the people I am talking about, most of these gentlemen, are Eskimos -- among the first people of the United States, members of a class of people to whom the United States government has broken its promises time and time again," Murkowski said.
It's not too late to keep this promise this time.Open Season
Federal employees, retirees and survivor annuitants have until the end of this week to change their health insurance selections under a belated enrollment period announced by the Office of Personnel Management. Open season closed Dec. 8. But after complaints about the fee structure of a Blue Cross/Blue Shield surgical benefit were reported in the Federal Diary and were then detailed during a hearing of a House subcommittee on the federal workforce, postal service and the District of Columbia, congressional pressure led the OPM to allow employees to change their selections.
As of Jan. 20, 19,027 Blue Cross/Blue Shied enrollees had quit the company during the belated enrollment period and 6,753 people had joined the Blues, for a net loss of 12,274, according to OPM figures.