As ethnic tensions continue and all sides await a critical U.N. decision on sovereignty, the Pentagon is considering reducing the pay of an estimated 1,900 U.S. troops stationed in Kosovo as part of a NATO peacekeeping force.
Far from the battles in Afghanistan and Iraq, these troops — comprised of more than 1,500 Army National Guard and the rest reservists or active duty soldiers now in the middle of a one-year deployment — could stand to lose upwards of $2,000 in pay each month, plus tax-exempt status and a free plane ticket home for R&R, say National Guard advocates and families of those currently deployed.
“This is kind of like the forgotten front — there are still bullets flying,” said Sgt. Maj. Frank Yoakum (Ret.), legislative director for the Enlisted Association of the National Guard. “They are trying to be peacekeepers in the middle of a civil war and that’s a tough job. They need to be compensated.”
Pentagon officials confirmed that the Combat Zone Tax Exclusion and Imminent Danger Pay status of the soldiers is undergoing a review as part of an annual ritual, but would not comment further.
James Carafano, a military expert for the Heritage Foundation, said the review is meant to apply a level of fairness to the situation. For all of the political uncertainty in Kosovo, U.S. troops have been serving in a relatively calm peacekeeping mission there, much like U.S. servicemen and women in South Korea, where Carafano once served.
“Just because people have always gotten those (combat/imminent danger pay) benefits in Kosovo, doesn’t mean they should continue to get them forever,” he said, pointing out that Pentagon reviews of pay grades are routine and necessary.
“We have major operations going on,” Carafano said. “It’s really an equity issue.”
Yoakum said that in conversations with the Pentagon, he was told any decision to downgrade would not affect those U.S. troops currently deployed in the Multinational Task Force-East, part of the NATO-led international peacekeeping mission known as the Kosovo Force (KFOR). Yoakum said he was also told that a final decision not yet been made. But he's not convinced.
“I don’t believe any of it,” Yoakum told FOXNews.com, relaying the story of a spouse of a Virginia Guardsman currently serving in KFOR who received an e-mail from her husband warning that the pay cut and decrease in benefits could occur as early as April 1. The tenor of the e-mail was that the pay cut is more imminent than the Pentagon is letting on, he said.
“You don’t send an e-mail back to the states and tell them what is happening and put numbers and dates on it unless you are pretty darn sure it’s happening,” Yoakum said. “You don’t want to stir problems up at home.”
The Pentagon review comes at a critical juncture, say observers. The U.S. military, particularly the Army National Guard, is stretched thin with expensive missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. In contrast, Kosovo is generally calm despite NATO soldiers continuing to engage in dicey patrols where they often encounter unexploded land mines, ethnic Albanian extremists and the presence of Islamic radicals who have moved into the region in recent years.
But the mostly peaceful situation could disintegrate, warn foreign policy analysts. The Kosovars are currently awaiting a U.N. decision on whether Kosovo will become formally independent from Serbia. If the world body, which has administered Kosovo since the 1999 war against Serbia, denies Kosovo independence, it could set off a powder keg of tensions.
“It’s also true that security has improved considerably, but there’s no reason to guarantee that situation will continue,” said Carina O’Reilly, a London-based editor for Jane’s Information Group, a private international security and intelligence firm.
On March 3, several thousand ethnic Albanians protested in the Kosovo capital of Pristina, warning against any U.N. plan that falls short of independence. A month earlier, two protesters were killed in a clash with U.N. police.
O'Reilly said if the United Nations delays its decision, the restless Albanian independence movement would be emboldened. If the U.N. decides to deny independence, the region could return to the violent days following the NATO-led aerial bombing in March-June 1999, when Albanian Kosovars began conducting ethnic cleansing of Serbians in the province.
U.S. troops have been stationed in Kosovo since the NATO campaign originally moved in to assist Albanians against attacks led by late Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. NATO announced last week that it intends to send 600 more soldiers to Kosovo. Meanwhile, National Guard units in Minnesota and Iowa were recently alerted they will deployed to Kosovo within the year to replace the soldiers there now.
Even if the U.N. grants independence to Kosovo — 80 percent of which consists of ethnic Albanians, the majority of whom are Muslim, O'Reilly warned that some low-level ethnic cleansing could occur against the small population of mainly Eastern Orthodox Serbians living there still.
“In short, conditions are relatively calm,” she said. “But I wouldn’t take any bets on the situation remaining as it is. It is only calm because all sides are waiting to see what comes next.”
Families of the deployed National Guard troops have been writing their congressmen and senators, as well as brass at the Pentagon and the White House to urge them to stop any plans to reduce pay. They say it would affect families, many of whom are already struggling with child and health care costs back home.
"For the families who were struggling before the deployment, it could make the biggest difference in the world," said one soldier’s wife, who did not want to be identified. She is one of the 500 families from the Virginia Guard, many of whom live in rural areas of a region that has recently been affected by a local squeeze on the job market.
"You have families out there who are living paycheck to paycheck," the full-time employee and mother of two said, adding that any downgrade in pay is going to affect mostly the lower-ranking members of the contingent.
"It’s not about the pay, the reason (the soldiers) are out there, but of pride and serving one’s country," she said. On the other hand, "Yes, the National Guard is a volunteer force, but it’s a job, and just like any other, our soldiers should be compensated. I wish the people making these decisions would come here and see where we live, see what it’s like."
According to Yoakum, depending on their ranks, the U.S. troops could lose an average of $50 a month in hazardous duty pay, $225 in imminent danger pay and $400 to $600 in savings through tax-exempt status. In addition to losing the plane ticket home, they could also lose their tax-free savings accounts, which are like IRAs for soldiers.
Soldiers from Virginia and Massachusetts make up two-thirds of the Kosovo Guard contingent. Soldiers from 24 other states round out the group, according to the official KFOR Web site. Those deployed have varied backgrounds in the military and many served in the first Gulf War, Afghanistan, Iraq and homeland security duty post-Sept. 11, 2001.
Some members of Congress have tried to help the troops over the pay issue. Sen. John Warner, R-Va., wrote a letter on March 2 to Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
“It is my belief that soldiers in Kosovo are performing dangerous missions on a daily basis. These missions include patrolling, disarming unexploded ordnance, anti-smuggling operations and other hazardous tasks,” he wrote.
“Due to these factors, I respectfully request that you carefully consider the ramifications of any proposals that would adjust the combat zone designation for KFOR,” Warner added.
Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, both of Minnesota, also drafted a letter to Gates, and Reps. Rick Boucher, R-Va., and Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., have pledged their help, Yoakum said.
“I would assume there is an opportunity to turn this thing around,” he said.
The timing of the Pentagon review, corresponding with an expensive troop surge in Iraq, has not been lost on military families and National Guard advocates.
Jack Harrison, spokesman for the National Guard Bureau in Washington, D.C., would not comment on the timing, but said the reviews are routine and the Guard must abide by any decision that the Pentagon makes on the matter.
“I can tell you this happened back in the '90s after the Persian Gulf War,” when Guardsmen were tasked to patrol the no-fly zone over Iraq, said Harrison. “(Combat pay) was constantly a matter of review and recertification.”
He added that 50,000 National Guard are now deployed in parts of the world outside of Afghanistan and Iraq.
“This is clearly a DoD issue,” he said of the Defense Department review. “As any service, we have to salute smartly and drive on.”