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Food stipend angst caused by deployments spur congressional concerns

House lawmakers are looking into potential fixes for military deployment rules that can cost some troops hundreds of dollars in meal stipends even if they aren’t eating at base dining facilities.

The problem was outlined in a letter sent to Congress and Military Times earlier this month by a company commander in South Korea. The plea could eventually result in new policies governing how military allowances are awarded and deducted overseas, although lawmakers do not have a proposed timeline for solutions.

Army Capt. Christopher Wilson, commander of Bravo Company, 1-12 Infantry Regiment, currently stationed in South Korea, wrote in his open letter to lawmakers that the situation is causing financial stress for a number of his troops and others stationed overseas.

“Many of our deployed servicemembers are taking home less income [when] deployed than when they are home,” he wrote. “This oversight is unacceptable.”

Lawmakers press for junior enlisted pay boost as soon as possible

The message has prompted discussions on Capitol Hill, although there are no firm legislative plans yet.

At issue is how troops’ Basic Allowance for Subsistence is distributed inside and outside the United States. According to Defense Department rules, the stipend “is meant to offset costs for a member’s meals” and “is not intended to offset the costs of meals for family members.”

In the case of Wilson’s company in South Korea, enlisted soldiers receive the same monthly stipend of about $460 a month that they do when they are stationed back home in the United States. However, while deployed overseas, those individuals are required to pay $399 for meal costs regardless of what they eat or whether they use base dining halls at all.

That automatic deduction can upend individuals’ monthly financial planning. Even with incentive pay and hardship pay offsets, the result is about $150 less each month in financial flexibility for the deployed personnel and their families back home, Wilson said.

According to service regulations, troops may be eligible for $250 in separation pay, covering some of those losses. But Wilson wrote that money is often needed to offset other family expenses like additional daycare services. And unmarried soldiers do not qualify for that extra stipend.

“This ludicrous fact is not only a detriment to our soldiers’ wallets, but also to their morale and their family’s welfare,” he wrote in his letter. “This burden is in addition to the slew of other financial strains that accompany families of deployed servicemembers, from childcare to home maintenance.”

The subsistence allowance rules are an issue for most overseas troops, but deployment bonuses and specialty pays for many assignments can mitigate the issue. Army leaders have also come under criticism for docking the stipend during some field training events.

Troops who spend even a single day in an eligible combat zone can have all of their pay and bonuses for the entire month excluded from taxable income. But not all overseas deployments qualify for that extra financial help.

House Appropriations Committee member Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Calif., told Military Times that he is reviewing the subsistence allowance issue and considering ways to address the problem.

Garcia has been at the center of a House Republican effort to boost junior enlisted pay, a move he said could help address a host of related financial headaches for military families. But he said his staff has been in contact with Wilson and other military members about the subsistence issue, and is considering next steps.

“That was news to me when I saw the letter,” he said.

Wilson’s letter has also been circulated to several other congressional offices, but whether legislation on the issue can pass this year is unclear. Congress still has yet to finalize budget plans for the fiscal year that started last October, and has just a few weeks before another funding deadline which could trigger a partial government shutdown.

But members of the House Armed Services Committee are reviewing a host of stipends and bonus pays as part of their work on next year’s annual defense authorization bill, with a focus on financial problems facing junior enlisted troops. Their plans for reforms are expected in coming months.

Reporter Davis Winkie contributed to this story.

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