Morale: Disputes Over Distress Pay

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February27, 2007: A U.S. Department of Defense proposal to pay troops "distress pay" if they were sent overseas sooner than expected, has caused a vigorous debate among the brass over how far to go with what is also called "inconvenience pay." The current proposal would pay soldiers $1,000 dollars for each month of stateside time they lost because they were needed overseas sooner than expected. The U.S. Army wants to have troops at their home bases at least 24 months between overseas assignments. So if you were sent back to Iraq 20 months after getting back, you would get $4,000 for loss of "dwell time" (at your home base.)

The current "distress pay" system began during World War II. Back then, the average enlisted soldier got paid (adjusted for inflation) about $500 a month. They received an extra $100 a month if they were overseas, and an extra $100 if they were in combat. Sailors were also given extra pay for being at sea, flight crew got a similar bonus. Paratroopers did best of all, getting the equivalent of $500 a month extra. Ironically, paratroopers ended the war with a lower casualty rate than most regular infantry units. That was mainly because airborne units were pulled out of the fighting to be rebuilt and train for their next jump, while regular units just kept getting replacements while they continued fighting.

The "hazardous duty pay" concept continued after World War II, with more categories being added. We now have "family separation allowance" ($250 a month for being away from your family), "imminent danger pay" ($225 for being in a combat zone) and "hazardous duty incentive pay" for particularly dangerous jobs ( Parachute Duty, Carrier Flight Deck Duty, Demolition/handling explosives Duty, Experimental Stress Duty, Handling Toxic Fuels or Propellants Duty, Handling Toxic Pesticides Duty, Dangerous Viruses or Bacteria Lab Duty, Handling Chemical Munitions). For some very dangerous jobs, like high altitude parachute (HALO) jumping, you get an extra $220 a month. This all adds up, increasing the pay of many troops by more than fifty percent.

Many senior officers are OK with dangerous duty bonuses, but don't want to set a precedent for extra pay for those who are inconvenienced. The other side of the argument is that the dangerous duty pay IS an "inconvenience pay" issue. Getting shot at is an inconvenience, and bad for morale. So is being away from your family and in a combat zone for extended periods of time. What is often forgotten in all of this is that soldiers have always received "combat pay." It's better known as plunder (given permission to loot enemy territory). In times past, the prospect of plunder was more of an incentive to join an army, than the promise of regular pay. It was like the lottery, and many soldiers got very rich. During the 14th century Hundred Years War between France and England, many English farmers joined up as archers, and came back wealthy men (after capturing a French aristocrat and holding him for a huge ransom). Since the 18th century, Western armies have gradually decreased the opportunities to loot, at least on a large scale and with permission. The whole "distress pay" concept says, in effect, "if some of you can't strike it rich, at least all off you will be a little better off," for going to war. Times change, but many customs don't go away.

 


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