Five months after the October deaths of four U.S. soldiers in Niger, the government added the African nation and its neighbors to the list of countries where service members receive additional hazard pay.
To avoid future delays in payments for troops participating in an expanding theater of war, a North Carolina congressman who represents Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, where all four soldiers were stationed, wants the Department of Defense to reconsider how it determines who is eligible for imminent danger pay.
Republican Rep. Richard Hudson says troops with dangerous assignments should be rewarded regardless of their geographic location. His proposed legislation asks the secretary of defense to produce a report by March 1 "examining the current processes for awarding imminent danger pay and hostile fire pay to members of the Armed Forces."
"It ought to be done by mission or authorities service people are deployed under, or the mission they're being asked to perform, given today’s modern warfare and the reality of mission to root out terrorism, as well as other more traditional missions our folks are performing," said Hudson, who is from Concord. "How do we make it more equitable and more reflect the realities of modern warfare?"
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American service members are currently eligible for hostile fire pay of $225 per month if he or she is "subjected to hostile fire or explosion of a hostile mine," "on duty in an area in close proximity to a hostile fire incident," or "killed, injured, or wounded by hostile fire, explosion of a hostile mine or any other hostile action," according to Department of Defense guidelines.
Troops are eligible for imminent danger pay of $225 per month if they are on duty in a designated area. There are currently about three dozen such geographic regions, from obvious ones like Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria to places like Kenya, Israel and parts of Greece, according to a November 2016 defense document.
A service member is eligible for either hostile fire pay or imminent danger pay, but not both, each month, and imminent danger pay can be pro-rated by the number of days of service in a designated area.
The U.S. was involved in counterterrorism activities in 76 countries from 2015 to October 2017, according to the Cost of War project at Brown University. That figure includes countries with U.S. bases used for counterterrorism activity, training, combat troops and air/drone strikes.
Robert Wilkie, the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, approved the additions of Niger, Mali and parts of Cameroon to the list of imminent danger pay countries on March 5. Wilkie grew up in Fayetteville while his father was stationed at Fort Bragg. He's now President Donald Trump's nominee to be secretary of Veterans Affairs.
He made their additions retroactive to June 7, 2017.
"Mr. Wilkie determined that personnel conducting operations in these countries and regions meet one or more of the criteria payment of IDP, i.e., members of the Armed Forces on duty in an area are subject to the threat of physical harm or imminent danger because of civil insurrection, civil war, terrorism, or wartime conditions," according to a Defense Department spokeswoman.
Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright, Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson and Sgt. La David Johnson were killed in an ambush in Niger in early October by members of the Islamic State group. The Army posthumously authorized hostile-fire pay for the four.
Geographic designations, Hudson said, can lead to tricky diplomatic problems with countries not wanting to be considered "combat zones" or the U.S. not wanting to tag them as such.
“They should be paying our troops imminent danger pay any place a member of the U.S. military has been killed, whether the administration admits they are in combat or not," said Jon Soltz, chairman of VoteVets, a progressive veterans' group.
Hudson's amendment was included in the House version of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act. It was not included in the Senate version. A conference committee — Hudson is on the committee — will work out disagreements between the two bills and the compromise bill will be voted on again by both chambers.
Hudson said he first became aware of the issue after talking with members of the 3rd Special Forces Group, which is based at Fort Bragg. Since July of 2015, the 3rd Special Forces Group has been assigned to Africa, which is becoming a larger part of the fight against terrorism.
He said he wants the Department of Defense to weigh in and his proposal will make that happen.
"We're asking 3 basic questions: Do you agree given the realities of today’s modern warfare? If you do agree with me, how would you do it? If you want to do it, can you do it yourself or do you need congressional action?" Hudson said.