ANCHORAGE, Alaska – The Army has decided to cut off retirement pay for veterans of a largely Native militia formed to guard the territory of Alaska from the threat of Japanese attack during World War II.
The change means 26 surviving members of the Alaska Territorial Guard — most in their 80s and long retired — will lose as much as $557 in monthly retirement pay, a state veterans officer said Thursday. The payments end Feb. 1.
Applications for retirement pay from 37 others have been suspended.
The state is pursuing a remedy for "these brave Alaskans, who did so much for the cause of freedom during a time of great national peril," Gov. Sarah Palin said.
The action comes almost a decade after Congress passed a law qualifying time served in the unpaid guard as active federal service. The Army agreed in 2004 to grant official military discharge certificates to members or their survivors.
An Army official said the law was misinterpreted. The law applies to military benefits, including medical benefits, but not retirement pay, said Lt. Col. Richard McNorton, the Army's human resources command in Alexandria, Va.
"The focus is to follow the law," he said. "We can't choose whether to follow the law."
The Army doesn't intend to seek to recoup past pay, he said.
About 300 members are still living from the original 6,600-member unit called up from 1942 to 1947 to scout patrols, build military airstrips and perform other duties. But only a fraction had enough other military service to reach the 20-year requirement for retirement pay.
Among those who did is 88-year-old Paul Kiunya in the western Alaska village of Kipnuk. Kiunya was 16 when he joined the territorial guard and worked in communications, reporting by radio any unusual noises or the direction of aircraft, including some Japanese planes he spotted.
"We did not get one cent being in the territorial guard," he said. "And we worked hard."
Kiunya — who later put in 22 years in the National Guard and another decade in the Guard reserves — will lose more than $358 a month in his retirement package because of the Army's decision. With gasoline in his village at almost $10 a gallon, that's a huge amount to lose.
"I don't know why they trying to cut the pay. It's not good for us right now," he said in a phone interview. "It's not right."
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said she and fellow Alaska Sen. Mark Begich are preparing legislation clarifying that service in the territorial guard counts as active duty for calculating retirement pay.
Murkowski said Alaska's congressional delegation has sent a letter to President Barack Obama, asking him to intervene so that those affected by "this tragic, tragic series of events do not lose the safety net."