The first major overhaul in hostile fire pay since World War II has been ordered by a Senate committee in a plan that would pay troops based on their actual number of days in a hostile area rather than a flat monthly rate. (Ted Aljibe / AFP)
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PAY By service
Number of troops by branch receiving hostile fire and imminent danger pay in 2010:
Air Force: 47,207
Marine Corps: 29,922
The first major overhaul in hostile fire pay since World War II has been ordered by a Senate committee in a plan that would pay troops based on their actual number of days in a hostile area rather than a flat monthly rate.
Approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee as part of the 2012 defense authorization bill, S 1254, the provision would convert the current $225 for hostile fire and imminent danger pay, paid for any month in which a person spends any time in a designated zone, to a new prorated payment of $7.50 for each day spent in a designated danger zone.
More than 50 areas worldwide qualify troops for danger pay. In most locations, it is paid only to troops on the ground. In some areas, both the land and airspace above qualify. Parts of various oceans and seas also qualify ships' crews for danger pay.
The Senate plan is not a done deal; there is no similar language in the House version of the defense policy bill, HR 1540. This will be among hundreds of differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill that negotiators must reconcile before a final bill can be passed.
The change, which would take effect Oct. 1, would fall mostly on rear-echelon and headquarters staff whose occasional and short visits to a hostile area, such as attending a change-of-command ceremony in Iraq or Afghanistan, provides them the same $225 monthly hostile fire pay that goes to the front-line Marine or soldier facing imminent danger every day of the month.
Because changes of command often happen on the first day of a month, someone arriving May 31 to attend a June 1 ceremony would draw $450 ó two months of danger pay. Those one- or two-day visitors benefit from what ground combat troops derisively call "sightseer pay."
Aircrews flying to and from danger areas and crews of Navy ships passing through danger areas also would see drops in pay. Ground combat troops would not be fully shielded, as their pay could be reduced at the start and end of a combat tour, when they might serve in a danger zone for less than a full month.
The federal tax exclusion on pay earned in combat zones, which also applies for a full month regardless of how many days of the month are spent in the designated area, is not addressed by the Senate bill because the committee does not have jurisdiction over tax law.
Prorating danger pay would save an estimated $30 million a year in a program that, in 2010, cost the Defense Department $823.6 million for payments to about 42,000 officers and 258,000 enlisted members.
The savings estimate assumes a total of 133,000 fewer months of danger pay being awarded.
In 2010, DoD sought and received authority from Congress to move to a daily rate for danger pay, but officials never agreed on a date for the change.
Some personnel officials have balked at taking any steps to reduce combat-related pays until operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have wound down, according to military sources who asked not to be identified because the Defense Department traditionally does not comment on pending legislation.
Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., a Vietnam combat veteran and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee's personnel panel, called the change a "basic accounting measure to ensure that individuals receive hostile fire or imminent danger pay only for the time they spend in qualifying areas."
Webb said ground combat troops will see "minimal impact" from the change "as they are stationed full time in the qualifying areas."
Hostile fire and imminent danger pay was $150 a month at the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but increased to $225 in 2003.