Lawmakers approve stopgap guard benefits

Elderly veterans lose total of about $10,000 a month or $557 each

Posted: Thursday, April 16, 2009

ANCHORAGE - Congress failed to act quickly, so state lawmakers stepped in to help World War II veterans whose pensions were reduced after the military no longer recognized their service guarding the territory of Alaska from the threat of Japanese attack.

Lawmakers put aside partisan politics to support 26 elderly members of the Alaska Territorial Guard. The state could cover the amount cut through early 2010 under a bill unanimously approved in both chambers.

"I don't think we've ever had a situation where a federal program was taken away so wrongly and with so little process. I think the state did the right thing," said state Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage.

The January pay reduction is a result of a new interpretation of a law passed by Congress in 2000 that had recognized the territorial guard's service as federal active duty. The Defense Department said an analysis of the law determined the service no longer counts toward the military's 20-year minimum for retirement pay.

The monthly pay being lost totals about $10,000, or as much as $557 per veteran. That's a huge loss for the survivors. Most are in their 80s and living in remote villages with painfully high heating costs and food prices.

Losing the money to a legal technicality sparked an outcry from veterans and officials, including Alaska's congressional delegation and Gov. Sarah Palin. She is expected to sign the bill in coming days.

Soon after the reduction was announced, Army Secretary Pete Geren dipped into an emergency fund to cover two additional months. The idea was to give Congress time to rework the language in the existing law, but the grace period ran out April 1 without a fix.

"The thing that outraged people more than anything was that this was a program the vets had earned," Wielechowski said. "If promises are made by the federal government, particularly for people who go out and defend their country, then it needs to keep those promises."

State legislators honored territorial guard members in a ceremony this week. But lawmakers view the federal government as ultimately responsible for continuing the pay. The state's action is a temporary patch, good only through February 2010.

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