Guard members get little for food

Troops assigned to Md. airports after Sept. 11 draw $7 a day

`We are now incurring debt'

January 19, 2002|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

HAGERSTOWN - For weeks, merchants and residents have been handing out pizza, sandwiches and food vouchers to 20 Army National Guard members patrolling the regional airport here in the aftermath of the attacks of Sept. 11.

They're offering the free meals because, unlike in many other states, these Guard members - and about 100 of their uniformed brethren at Baltimore-Washington International and Salisbury airports - aren't being reimbursed by the federal government for their food while on virtually round-the-clock special duty.

The troops are accepting the charity or paying for their meals even though many say their activation orders promised them food reimbursements of the sort that many other Guard members around the country are receiving for similar duties.

"What I'm wondering is why these people aren't being supported with meals while they're out there giving us their service," said Pam Vahle, owner of a Quizno's Subs shop near Hagerstown Regional Airport, who has pitched in with Italian sandwiches, chips and drinks.

Members of the airport details are asking the same question. Most aren't wealthy. When they're not on Guard duty, they are plumbers, firefighters, construction workers, carpenters, mechanics, bartenders, students.

And when they left their jobs to become part of the federal airport operation known as Vigilant Guard last fall, they were given government credit cards for food and incidentals. But it turns out that they - not the government - are responsible for paying the balance.

"On top of the fact that we are making less than our civilian jobs, and have no federal financial relief benefits, we are now incurring debt on credit cards that were supposed to be paid by the Army," said a Dec. 29 letter to Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett that was signed by about 70 Guard members. The members are commuting to the airports from around Maryland, as well as from Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington.

Instead of drawing food reimbursements in the range of $28 to $40 a day, the citizen-soldiers have been receiving a $7 a day "basic allowance for subsistence" in their paychecks. "At BWI airport, you cannot get a single meal for less than seven dollars," the letter to Bartlett said.

Maryland National Guard leaders are applying to the Army for a waiver they believe is needed before the soldiers can be paid a larger per diem.

"We are working that reimbursement really, really hard," said Col. Howard Freedlander, executive officer of the Maryland Guard. "It's a soldiers' issue, and taking care of soldiers is critical to us."

Some states - such as California, Colorado and Ohio - pay a larger per diem, as much as $40 a day, to scores of Guard members assigned to airport details who have lengthy commutes to their airport assignments. The rationale, according to Guard officials in those states, is that troops deserve compensation if their temporary details take them too far away to eat at home or at a mess hall.

Many Guard members posted at Maryland airports are commuting long distances.

The three shifts making up the Hagerstown airport team must first report to an armory in Westminster - nearly 50 miles from the airport - to collect equipment before heading to their assignment in a government-paid van. The first shift, which starts at the airport at 4 a.m. and works till 10:30 a.m., reports to the armory by 3 a.m.

The state-by-state differences in reimbursement for meals appears to spring from varying interpretations of a national military-duty policy. That policy states that short-term assignments in the Army National Guard are often to include daily meal payments that vary by location but are adequate for three full meals a day.

However, assignments that stretch 140 days or longer usually fall into a different category, in which troops may receive a housing allowance but only the $7 a day "basic allowance for subsistence."

Part of the confusion is over the uncertain duration, from soldier to soldier, of the airport mission.

Some Maryland National Guard officials said they initially believed the assignment was temporary duty. The orders from the Virginia-based National Guard Bureau, which oversees units' funding, initially arrived with a "TDY" designation denoting temporary status, said Col. Annette Deener, a human resources officer with the Maryland National Guard.

But when the Maryland rank-and-file members inquired about meal paybacks through their chain of command, they were told that they had been activated for more than 139 days and that they therefore were only eligible for the $7-a-day subsistence allowance, not the larger daily meal reimbursements.

"The Army normally tells you about the rules of engagement up front, but here the rules changed," said 1st Sgt. William Rosier, a Howard County firefighter who oversees the Hagerstown airport detail. "One of my guys joked that even convicts at the Hagerstown prison get three meals a day."

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