Saturday, October 07, 2006

On Combat Pay and wounds

The controversy over troops losing their "combat pay" when wounded in Afghanistan has caused everything from political cartoonists to pundits to sally forth with fingers pointed at the government, essentially calling the whole thing "mean spirited".

We had an email exchange going on here, behind the scenes, which was primarily a Q & A and the offering of ideas. Reading through some of the newspapers however, it's pretty clear that the concept of allowances (which has been labelled "danger pay" by most journals) for in-theatre risk and the tax-exempt status of those on hazardous duty is not well understood.

The simplest commentaries are howling that it is unfair that someone wounded in theatre suddenly takes a pay cut. That isn't what happens.

A member ceases being eligible for in-theatre allowances and benefits when the member is removed from the theatre. If a member is wounded and treated in-theatre, allowances and benefits continue.

If a member is wounded and transported out of theatre allowances and benefits generally continue for an additional 25 days. Regular pay and allowances continue to be provided along with full medical care and with direct support to the member's family if required.

The Canadian Forces compensation and benefits system is not simple. It is, however, worth looking over. You will find a plethora of allowances, both taxable and non-taxable, associated with different levels of risk and deprivation. In every case, a member is entitled to an allowance only when performing a duty which warrants a special allowance; and the member must be in situ.

The tax-exemption for members on hazardous duty is a government initiative across four departments and ministries. The Canadian Forces have no authority to extend a tax-exemption beyond the time actually served in the environment for which it was instituted. The tax-exemption is actually provided by the Canada Revenue Agency and the Department of Finance, leaving DND and the Solicitor General's department (where it applies to police on foreign duty) duty bound to observe the regulations provided by CRA.

There has also been some dishonesty surrounding this issue. Gordon O'Connor blamed the previous Liberal government for legislation which caused operational allowances to end when a soldier was wounded. That's simply not the truth.

What the Liberals did was introduce, in 1995, a revised compensation package which affected all operational allowances and made them more rational. It was the Paul Martin government which introduced the tax-exemption for hazardous duty, an initiative which was rejected by the Mulroney Conservatives 13 years earlier.

There has also been information floating around that wounded soldiers simply have their pay stopped once they are hospitalized out of theatre. That's not true either.

Serving members, even those in hospital, for any reason, are paid according to their rank and military occupation in accordance with the CF CBI scale.

The Chief of Defence Staff, General Rick Hillier has moved to provide some correction to the problem. That won't change what happens now. Soldiers removed from theatre, for any reason, will cease receiving operational allowances and tax-exemption. To do otherwise would open a huge can of worms and provides the potential for legitimate complaints when, for example, a sailor is posted ashore as an instructor earlier than anticipated and loses sea-duty allowance.

Both Hillier and O'Connor said that the "operational allowances" would still be discontinued for wounded soldiers.

"We compensate people who go into high-risk areas with a high risk allowance and when they come out of the high risk area, the allowance ceases," O'Connor said. "That is the plan right now and that plan will carry on into the future," he said.

However, Hillier suggested those payments might be replaced by something else so wounded soldiers don't take a financial hit in addition to the physical battering they've already suffered.

I can understand that sentiment. However, the financial hit is questionable. Unless basic training has changed, new soldiers, sailors and air force personnel are admonished not to spend additional and temporary operational allowances before they go in the bank and to tailor their lifestyle to live within the means provided by their basic pay.

What may happen is the creation of a new allowance specifically intended for those wounded in a combat theatre. All sorts of possibilities exist and it will be interesting to see how it evolves.

In any case, a serviceman or servicewoman who takes a bullet or wad of shrapnel while on active duty deserves considerable compensation beyond that of a wound stripe.

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