ANCHORAGE - The Secretary of the Army has authorized emergency funds to supplement a reduction in retirement pay for veterans of a largely Native militia formed to guard the territory of Alaska during World War II, Alaska's congressional delegation said Wednesday.
The reduction was a result of misinterpretation of a federal law that recognized the Alaska Territorial Guard's service as federal active duty, Army officials said last week. A new interpretation of the law says service in the five-year guard no longer counts toward the military's 20-year minimum for retirement pay.
According to the three-member congressional delegation, Army Secretary Pete Geren will use an emergency fund to cover the retirement benefits for 26 former members of the largely Native guard. The monthly pay amounts to as much as $557.
The funds will cover two months' pay while Congress works to fix the law to allow service in the unit to count as active duty for calculating retirement benefits.
Alaska's congressional delegation applauded Geren's move, saying that cutting off the pay would be detrimental to those veterans.
"In this era of high fuel and food costs, it would be tragic to reduce the retirement checks of these elders who have done so much for our nation," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.
Retirement payment claims by 31 other former members remain suspended until the law is clarified, said Jerry Beale of the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. He said the military should have gone to Alaska's congressional representatives in the first place.
"The Army should have never stopped the pay until the congressional delegation was notified and had an opportunity to clarify the law or at least answer their questions," he said.
U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, said the decision to reduce payments was "a huge misstep," adding it was the intention of Congress that benefits "would be for life, not until the DOD reinterpreted legislative language to suit their needs."
An estimated 300 members are still living from the original 6,600-member unit formed in 1942 to protect the territory of Alaska from the threat of a Japanese attack. Only a fraction had enough other military service to reach the 20-year requirement for retirement pay.
The territorial guards - nicknamed Uncle Sam's Men and Eskimo Scouts - received no pay or benefits for the job. Many took jobs as scouting patrols or did construction work on military airstrips.
The unit was disbanded in 1947, nearly two years after the war ended.
Congress passed a law in 2000 qualifying time served in the guard as active federal service. The Army agreed in 2004 to grant official military discharge certificates to members or their survivors. Those who qualified for military retirement benefits began receiving increased pay for service in the militia starting last June, when the former members also received retroactive payments to the law's passage in 2000.