Tagged: military spouse benefits

Ready, Fire, Aim!!! Secretary of Defense Has No Idea What Expanding Benefits to Same-Sex Partners Will Cost DoD

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

militaryauthority.com sam sex partner military benefitsJust a few months ago, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and his predecessor Leon Panetta were pounding the table for TRICARE fee increases and pension reforms, arguing that over time, personnel costs would overwhelm the DoD.

Now the Secretary of Defense, having supported the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, has pledged to make the full range of lucrative benefits available to same-sex spouses of service members that are available to heterosexual married couples. These benefits range from the widely understood Tricare health insurance benefit to qualification for military housing, a significantly higher housing allowance (BAH Type II), free PCS moves and family separation pay.

So what’s this going to cost? 

Well, the Secretary of Defense doesn’t know. Having advocated the policy change, the Administration had no idea what the fiscal effect on the Department of Defense was going to be. 

The concern over the significant cost burden of paying benefits to the families of servicemembers is not new. In the early 1990s, then Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Carl Mundy, proposed saving money by prohibiting married individuals from joining the Marine Corps. This policy would have echoed the military practice of prior generations: In the 1950s, anyone below sergeant in the Army required the company commander’s permission before getting married.

As it stands now, the DoD estimates that there are about 17,000 military members with same-sex partners in marriages recognized by at least one state. That’s about a division equivalent.

You’d think that with the repeal of DOMA on the horizon for years, that the DoD or the Administration would at least come up with a ballpark budget-impact estimate. After all, local commands in the Reserve component have to come up with a cost-estimate worksheet just to hire a few people for a week to help prepare for an inspection.

The DoD, however, will apparently be blindsided by the cost of their own favored policy. 

However, any cost estimate would have to include the difficult-to-predict impact that human responses to incentives will create. For example, how many gay troops over and above the 17,000 estimated will now get married in order to collect military benefits? Are there others who have not been identified? If the 17,000 estimate is low, then costs will be higher than projected. If they bothered to project them in the first place.

Will we see healthy partners of HIV-positive individuals join the military to give their partners access to Tricare benefits, and what will that cost? Will we see retired servicemembers come out and enroll their partners? Will we see same sex roommates engaging in sham marriages to get a higher BAH payout? How will we police that? Or will we?

 

Definitions Matter

A big part of the budget impact of the expansion of military benefits will have to do with how the DoD (and to a lesser extent, the Veterans Administration) defines what will and what will not count as a marriage for the purposes of DEERs enrollment. For example, will the DoD grant benefits to those servicemembers in domestic partnerships that aren’t formally marriages? If it does, will it grant the same benefits to heterosexuals in domestic partnerships? Will the state laws governing same-sex marriages have any bearing on the status of marriages within that state? How will the DoD treat servicemembers wishing to marry in states that do not recognize same-sex marriages? Will same-sex partners still have to show marriage certificates as heterosexual couples do in order to qualify?

 

The Broader Picture

To be fair, there are some early indications that the repeal of DOMA will cause a net increase in federal revenue, because of the marriage tax penalty that will be imposed upon married same-sex couples, and because married couples with combined incomes would be less likely to qualify for public assistance programs than two unmarried individuals with separate incomes. The Congressional Budget Office concluded in 2004 that same-sex marriage would have the effect of actually decreasing the federal deficit, because of these effects. However, this would not benefit the Department of Defense directly. To pay for these benefits, the DoD has a few options:

  1. Slash benefits across the board for all families to pay for the at least 17,000 new partners and counting.
  2. Increase TRICARE fees.
  3. Cut operational, maintenance, physical plant and spare parts budgets
  4. Cut a couple more brigade combat teams, ships, or aircraft programs or some combination of the three.

These cost saving measures are already well underway – prompted by the twin engines of a natural post-war cyclical drawdown and the additional requirements of sequestration. The DoD is already complaining that the sequestration requirements will force them to cut bone. The additional benefits paid will force further cuts in an already austere fiscal environment for the U.S. military.

 

GI Bill Tip: Establishing Residency for In-State Tuition

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

Tuition costsYesterday, we brought you the saga of Kayleigh Perez, a spouse of an active duty soldier stationed in North Carolina who was denied residency status by the University of North Carolina.

A bit of digging revealed why – and some lessons for other servicemembers and their families as they transition to schools in new states.

Background

Under the new Post-9/11 GI Bill rules, establishing residency in a state system is crucial to maximizing GI Bill benefits, because GI Bill benefits only cover in-state tuition.

Until the beginning of 2011, the Post-9/11 GI Bill would pay up to the highest in-state tuition rate anywhere in the state. Buy as of fiscal year 2011, Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits are capped at the actual tuition for in-state servicemembers. This is true even though the same servicemember would receive even greater benefits – up to $17,500 per year – attending a private institution. The result is a perverse incentive to attend a more expensive school.

This was a big deal for Ms. Perez, because the out-of-state tuition puts the Broke in UNC-Pembroke: it’s $12,219. That’s compared to a price tag of $3,012 if she qualified for in-state tuition, which is all she’d get from the Post-9/11 GI Bill in any case. By selecting Methodist University – a private institution – over the UNC system, Perez can qualify for a benefit of up to $17,500 per year, and potentially pay nothing out of pocket.

So why was Ms. Perez’s application for residency denied? After all, the State of North Carolina grants residency status to active duty servicemembers stationed in North Carolina and to their dependents alike. Well, as with so many things, the devil is in the details.

Timing Matters

Under North Carolina law, residency for service members and their families begins as of the effective date of their orders transferring them to their new command. This means that your wife doesn’t get to qualify for residency status in North Carolina if you send her over first to find a new place for you. And North Carolina doesn’t allow residency based on a set of PCS orders that haven’t been executed yet. The servicemember has to be present in North Carolina and on duty at the new duty station before the beginning of the term for which the service member is applying for benefits.

Per the University of North Carolina:

The active duty service member must produce a “Command confirmation of residency letter” from their commanding officer on official letterhead. In the event that a service member is deployed and their dependent needs this letter – the commanding officer or the family readiness officer can provide this to the dependent. The service member must officially assume the duty station in North Carolina prior to the beginning of the term for which they are seeking the military tuition benefit.

The policy is relatively restrictive on the front end, but it favors the student on the back end:

Suppose Ms. Perez enrolled for the summer semester, and qualified for in-state tuition. But then her husband received PCS orders transferring him to another state on day two of the semester. Ms. Perez would get to finish the entire semester in North Carolina at in-state rates. Further, she can stay at UNC for as long as she’s continuously enrolled. UNC won’t strip her in-state tuition price tag because her husband got transferred somewhere else, as long as she stays enrolled, with one condition: Her husband must still maintain residency in North Carolina, documented on his LES after the second term, and be able to show that residency status for the previous 12 months. As long as her husband’s LES says his home of record and income tax withholding is in North Carolina, his wife is good to go, no matter where her husband is serving.

This is why knowing the specific rules governing residency in your state is important. Each state has its own rules governing eligibility. But in any case, it’s a good idea to secure a command confirmation of residency letter on unit letterhead.

Here’s a sample letter to show your unit clerk, first sergeant, CPO or commander to demonstrate residency for dependents. Here is a sample for the servicemember’s own personal application.

Even if your state doesn’t formally require a command confirmation of residency, it won’t hurt your application to include it anyway. Many times, the decision to grant residency for in-state tuition purposes can be subjective. There’s no kill like an overkill, so make the rubble bounce.

UNC Denies Residency Status to Veteran – Charges Out-Of-State Tuition Rates

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

hayleigh perez UNC tuitionThe University of North Carolina is charging out-of-state tuition rates to a U.S. Army veteran who claims she has long maintained a residence within the state. Hayleigh Perez, 26, enlisted in the Army in 2005, and was stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. According to reporting by ABC News’s Susanna Kim, Perez deployed overseas in January 2007 for a 15-month tour. She returned in 2008 and was discharged in September 2009. She is married to an active-duty servicemember.

The couple own a home in North Carolina, but had been living in Texas for several years, where her husband was stationed. Now her husband has been transferred back to North Carolina.

Hayleigh is now trying to attend the University of North Carolina on the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Benefits only cover in-state tuition costs. But the University has denied her application to residency status due to her absence from the state while she was living in Texas.

Ms. Perez appealed to the State Residency Board, which also denied her appeal.

Background

Residency requirements and criteria are generally a function of state law. There is no uniform set of standards that apply across the country, and each state is free to set its own residency criteria for its own college and university systems.

The State of North Carolina points to the set of laws passed by the North Carolina legislature that guides officials on how to determine eligibility for in-state tuition.

Here is the Residency Manual published by the State of North Carolina specifically to define the criteria for college officials.

While it is true that applicants must generally demonstrate that they are domiciled in North Carolina to receive state tuition, page 16 of their own manual contains the following passage:

Under the special in-state tuition laws for active duty military personnel and their eligible family members, if a non-resident member of the armed services is stationed in North Carolina because of his or her active duty military service, then the service member as well as his or her spouse, dependent children, and dependent relatives who are living with the service member shall be charged the in-state tuition rate along with any applicable mandatory fees.

Perez’s husband received orders to return to North Carolina in April of 2012.

In addition, North Carolina defines the residency eligibility for dependents of active duty servicemembers in black letter law:

Any dependent relative of a member of the Armed Forces who is abiding in this State incident to active military duty, as defined by the Board of Governors of The University of North Carolina and by the State Board of Community Colleges while sharing the abode of that member shall be eligible to be charged the in?State tuition rate, if the dependent relative qualifies for admission to an institution of higher education as defined in G.S. 116?143.1(a)(3).

It is not clear why the residency board decided not to apply this part of the law in Perez’s case, though the law does say that she has to share the abode of her servicemember sponsor to qualify.

More details here. According to reporting from the Fayetteville Observer, Perez did not provide sufficient documentation to buttress her claim to residency. However, all it would take to demonstrate residency under the criteria established above would be a copy of her husband’s orders and a dependent military ID, along with documentation that she was sharing an abode with her husband. Fayetteville State University – another campus in the UNC system, accepted her residency status – it was only the UNC-Pembroke campus that did not.

Sandy Briscar, acting as a spokesperson for the University of North Carolina Pembroke, declined to comment on Perez’s case specifically, citing HIPAA concerns, other than to say that Perez had applied for the spring semester, and at that time, she had not submitted sufficient documentation to UNC Pembroke to demonstrate that she was entitled to residency status.

One issue: Timing. According to Pembroke campus spokesperson Sandy Briscar, Perez applied for the spring semester – which was almost over by the time her husband arrived in North Carolina in April.

If you are considering applying for in-state tuition in a state you plan to move to after receiving PCS orders, it may make sense to ask, in writing, if the campus will accept PCS orders as proof of domicile for the purpose of establishing residency. If the school responds in writing, you have something to include with your application – and something on which to base an appeal if the residency decision doesn’t go your way.

Jodi Worthington, a spokesperson for the University of North Carolina system responded to our requests for more information. “Because Ms. Perez’s circumstances have changed and her husband is now stationed in North Carolina, she would be considered an in-state resident were she to re-apply to a UNC institution now,” said Worthington, both by phone and by email. “We would encourage her to do so.”

It was not immediately clear why her application for residency status was approved at Fayetteville State University but denied at Pembroke.

We asked the UNC if a military family could apply for in-state tuition status once they had the PCS orders in hand, or if they had to wait until they were actually present in North Carolina before the application could be approved, and why the two campuses came to different conclusions about her eligibility for residency status. At press time, the UNC has not responded. We will update this story when they do.

Meanwhile, Ms. Perez has decided to attend a private college in the area, where she intends to pursue a degree as a physician’s assistant.

 

Photo credit: ABC News

22 Month Old Air Force Baby Dies of Neglect – In Base Housing

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

Tiffany KlaphekeA 26 year-old Air Force Spouse is in jail after allegedly letting her 22-month old daughter die of malnutrition and neglect, say officials in Fort Worth, Texas. Her two other girls, one three years old and one aged six months, are in intensive care recovering from severe neglect.

Tiffany Nicole Klapheke, originally from Kentucky, was married to an airman and stationed at Dyess Air Force Bace, Texas.

Klapheke told a local television station, KTXS, that with three young children at home, she grew depressed and suicidal while her husband was deployed overseas. She also alleges that no one from the command, family support group or anywhere else called her or checked on her or asked if she needed anything.

“I know people hate me and I don’t understand, but it was not my intention. I just wanted a break for my own sanity, that’s all. I didn’t mean for it to go so far,” she told a KTXS reporter in a tearful interview from the jail where she is being held on a $500,000 bond. “I made a terrible mistake and I know I’ll be paying for it the rest of my life.”

The post, Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, the home of the 7th Bomber Wing, does have a child development center on the post. The Dyess Child Development Center assigns priority to children based on their parental employment status. Single parents on active duty receive first priority. 2nd priority goes to active duty military members with spouses who are either employed full-time or who are full-time students. Children of active-duty servicemembers or DoD contractors whose spouses are not working receive third priority, called Category 3.

The Child Development Center accepts children from age six weeks to six months. In addition to its full-time care program, the CDC also runs an hourly “drop-off” care operation.

We called the Child Development Center on September 4th and asked about the prospects for placing a 22 month old child in Category 3. Their staff told us that there was currently a waiting list for children under 24 months. Once a child reaches 24 months, “we can take those children almost walk-in,” said the CDC staffer. But the two year-old range is their highest-demand age group. Tamryn Klapheke was 22 months old when she died. Tiffany Nicole Klapheke very likely could not have gotten a placement at all for her until Tamryn reached age two.

However, there were other resources available: The Air Force Aid Society sponsors a “Give-A-Parent-a-Break Program.” This program provides monthly services for Air Force parents who need a break from the rigors of child care. The program is run on a referral basis: Chaplains, commanders and first sergeants can refer a family to these services.

Military families can also access all kinds of support and referrals from Military OneSource.

Additionally, Ms. Klapheke also had access to the Airman and Family Readiness Center on post, which could also have referred her to support systems around the community.

Aside from the point-blank issue of immediate child care availability, however, there is a broader issue of a woman — an active duty military spouse — who fell through the cracks somehow. Whether the issue was post-partum depression, organic depression not related to post-partum depression, or any other mental health issue, this woman’s children had been neglected for some time.

While rear detachment commanders — those officers who are designated to oversee administrative and logistical issues at home station while the unit main body is deployed — are not day-to-day nose-wipers or babysitters for stressed parents, they do have basic responsibility for the welfare of military families, together with the base commander and, of course, the unit commander stationed forward.

Additionally, major commands generally have informal spousal support networks — frequently headed by the wives of senior officers and NCOs. A major purpose for these family support groups is to provide a safety net and support system for spouses and their children — particularly when the servicemember is deployed.

Somehow, even though the children were severely underweight, and essentially left to dehydrate and starve in their own waste (Tamryn was only 17 and a half pounds when she died and the other two children were placed in intensive care) nobody had seen these children, or if they had seen them, no one had taken notice of their condition.

Even if the day care center on base had slots available immediately, there would still have been a spouse in need.

Mental Health Care Issues

With PTSD issues a high-visibility concern for the military, and with suicides in the military outpacing the ongoing war in Afghanistan as a cause of death, access to mental health care has been a front-burner issue for commands throughout the DoD. Mental health care access has historically been spotty, but does not appear to have been an issue in this case. Dyess Air Force Base has a mental health center on the post itself, that supports both uniformed servicemembers and their dependents. No appointment is necessary — the center is generally able to support walk-ins.

Command Response

While it’s obvious in hindsight that this woman and her children — living on post — fell through the cracks in the support and health and welfare system, the command appears to have been responsive to the incident: According to a Dyess AFB spokesperson, the 7th Bomb Wing and Dyess Air Force Base commander, has held three town halls in response, attended by family members, senior officer and NCO leadership, family members, family support group representatives, representatives from the key support facilities on post, and the post chaplain. “Base leadership plans to use feedback from these meetings to improve communication and teamwork at Dyess, thereby ensuring that Airmen and their families are being taken care of,” said the Dyess Air Force Base spokesperson.

For the time being, Dyess is not commenting on some of our specific questions, including whether Ms. Klapheke was, indeed, on the telephone roster in the family support group, and whether she had placed herself on a do-not-contact list. Family Support Group organizations are prohibited from contacting family members who elect to be put on the do-not-contact list.

However, since the Klapheke’s were occupying government housing at the time Tamryn and the other children were suffering from neglect, any such refusal can only go so far. Military housing authorities can do health and welfare inspections of military housing. However, few families want to live in an environment where federal bureaucrats would be so intrusive on a routine basis.

The father of the children, Senior Airman Thomas Klapheke, has been returned from overseas. Tiffany Nicole is still in jail. Thomas Klapheke has already updated his Facebook status to “divorced.”

Takeaways:

  • Parents and spouses: Check on each other. Just because you think you’re doing ok doesn’t mean everyone is. Some people are more fragile and have a harder time coping than others. Cross-reinforce yourselves.
  • A phone call isn’t enough. Family support group members need to get eyeball-to-eyeball with spouses and get eyes on children.
  • If someone isn’t participating in family support group activities at all, find out why. It could be that this family is getting all the support they need from extended family and other resources. Or it could be that something is wrong. In this case, something was tragically wrong.
  • Rear detachment commanders: Take an interest in each family, down to the junior enlisted level. This is where money is the tightest, and where some of these spouses are hardly out of high school themselves — and far from home, sometimes for the first time. These are the spouses with the most limited natural support networks.
  • We have been down this road before. The stress of deployment has been demonstrated to correlate strongly with an increase in child abuse and neglect in military families. Rear detachment commanders and their support staff, including DoD civilians, would do well to familiarize themselves with the literature that already exists. In particular, the North Carolina Medical has published a detailed report exploring the vulnerability of military children to child abuse and parental homicide. 

CCME Scholarships for Military, Spouses and Veterans

Posted by Debi Teter

military educationThe Council of College and Military Educators, a not-for-profit organization, was founded 39 years ago to promote, encourage, and deliver quality education to service members and their families in all branches of the armed services. Its membership is principally composed of military educators, civilian educators, post-secondary educational institutions, and suppliers of quality education products and services.

Each year the CCME offers $1000 scholarships for Servicemembers, Military Spouses, and Veterans who are working towards the completion of higher education degrees at a member institution.

CCME Scholarship Applications must be submitted online. This year’s application will be available July 16 through the scholarship application deadline, October 1, 2012.

The eligibility requirements for each CCME scholarship category are as follows:

CCME Joe King Scholarship (5 awards)
Applicants must:

  • be a uniformed service member (active, reserves, guard)
  • be currently enrolled in an educational program at a regional or national accredited institution and is a member institution of CCME
  • first time associate, bachelor, or graduate degree seeker
  • have a minimum of 12 or more hours (units) with a cumulative 2.5 GPA (undergraduate) from the CCME member institution; minimum 6 or more hours (units) with a cumulative 3.0 GPA (graduate) from the CCME member institution
  • submit an unofficial college or university transcript from all colleges
  • submit two (2) letters of recommendation to be completed by persons unrelated to applicant, who will attest to their motivation, character, integrity and educational pursuit. One recommendation must be from a faculty member or academic advisor.

CCME Spouse Scholarship (5 awards)
Applicants must:

  • be the spouse of a uniformed service member (active, reserves, guard, veteran)
  • be currently enrolled in an educational program at a regional or national accredited institution and is a member institution of CCME
  • first time associate, bachelor, or graduate degree seeker
  • have a minimum of 12 or more hours (units) with a cumulative 2.5 GPA (undergraduate) from the CCME member institution; minimum 6 or more hours (units) with a cumulative 3.0 GPA (graduate) from the CCME member institution
  • submit an unofficial college or university transcript from all colleges
  • submit two (2) letters of recommendation to be completed by persons unrelated to applicant, who will attest to their motivation, character, integrity and educational pursuit. One recommendation must be from a faculty member or academic advisor.

CCME Veteran Scholarship (5 awards)
Applicants must:

  • be a prior uniformed service member (active, reserves, guard)
  • be currently enrolled in an educational program at a regional or national accredited institution and is a member institution of CCME
  • first time associate, bachelor, or graduate degree seeker
  • have a minimum of 12 or more hours (units) with a cumulative 2.5 GPA (undergraduate) from the CCME member institution; minimum 6 or more hours (units) with a cumulative 3.0 GPA (graduate) from the CCME member institution
  • submit an unofficial college or university transcript from all colleges
  • submit two (2) letters of recommendation to be completed by persons unrelated to applicant, who will attest to their motivation, character, integrity and educational pursuit. One recommendation must be from a faculty member or academic advisor.
  • Essays will be judged on written content and writing skills, and should be at least 400-750 words in length. Applications that are incomplete or are from individuals that do not qualify will not be considered. Finalists will be required to provide documentation of service.

Wish Upon A Wedding

Posted by S.E. Davidson Parker

military weddingJake and Meredith met at church and soon became fast friends. Friendship developed into even more, and they became engaged. Life, in that particular way it works, decided to get in the way. Throwing one thing after another after at Meredith and Jake, life quickly became complicated (and that’s an understatement). The money for an engagement ring was not there earlier; a wedding would most definitely have to wait. Unbeknownst to them, a friend had presented their story to Wish Upon A Wedding; Jake and Meredith became husband and wife in January 2012.

Why is this on a military blog? Because Jake is a Lance Corporal in the United State Marine Corps, and Meredith is a former Marine Corps officer. They were married at the United States Naval Academy, Meredith’s alma mater.

Wish Upon A Wedding (WUW) provides free wedding ceremonies and receptions for the terminally ill, for severely injured service members, and others having faced/are facing “seriously life-altering circumstances.” Formed in 2009, this non-profit organization wants to “to celebrate the courage, determination and spirit of these couples by granting their dream wedding wishes.” And with over 30 wishes granted in over two years, they are doing just that, and doing it well.

There are over 20 local chapters of WUW across the nation filled with wedding vendors who provide, free of charge, their services or products to ensure that those who are postponing their wedding because of dramatic circumstances have the opportunity to have a great wedding. Applicants first fill out the online application, which is forwarded on to the closest local chapter. The application not only asks for the basics (name, address, phone number) but also for medical information/other information to verify the situation. Information is verified, and decisions are made based on applicant circumstances and eligibility.

Once an applicant has been chosen, items covered in the wedding depend on the number and type of vendors involved as volunteers. What typically is covered is the officiant, venue, wedding planner, florist, cake, caterer, and most rentals. Often times, the gown and tuxedo is covered. What is never covered is alcohol; if you wish to provide alcohol to your guests, you must do so on your own and also provide liability insurance.

The wedding planner takes over for you once receiving your preferences. There are no guarantees; each chapter runs solely on volunteers. If there are no volunteers that specialize in lighting and a dance floor, it simply can’t be provided. Gathering multiple volunteers together for one event can sometimes be difficult; keep that in mind when you are requesting a wedding because you may not get the particular date you desire. Check here for the list of items that WUW can and cannot generally provide when planning a wedding.

If your circumstances prompt a wedding in less than six weeks, there is a limit of 25 guests. If you can wait longer than that, up to six months, you can invite up to 50 guests.

If you know of a couple, or are a couple, with extreme circumstances, visit Wish Upon A Wedding’s website. Like the national chapter on Facebook, as well as many of their regional chapters. You can help this unique organization in many ways; they offer eight suggestions, including financial donations, becoming a wish granter (donating time and service as a vendor), and directly volunteering with the local chapter, including helping to start a new chapter in your area.

 

(Disclaimer; I am a wedding vendor signed up to provide services in my local chapter. There has been no financial remuneration involved from WUW in the writing of this article. They are not aware of this article prior to its publication.)

COL Johnson Case: The Fallout for Military Spouses

Posted by Debi Teter

The current prosecution of COL James Johnson on a variety of charges, including fraud, bigamy and conduct unbecoming an officer is highlighting problems with the way the government dispenses justice to career military officers and NCOs convicted of wrong doing. 

First, an overview of the case: COL Johnson was well on his way up the stairway to the stars. He received command of the prestigious 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vicenza, Italy – long considered the plum assignment for combat arms officers headed for flag rank. But in March of 2011, he was relieved of command, after evidence surfaced that he had committed a series of crimes. Among the allegations:

  • COL Johnson, who was married at the time, had arranged government travel, worth tens of thousands of dollars, to facilitate meeting an Iraqi mistress in the Netherlands.
  • He provided a government cell phone to his mistress and her family, which racked up $80,000 in usage charges. 
  • Improperly steering a lucrative military contract to his mistress’s father, hiring him as a “cultural advisor.”
  • Falsifying at least 18 travel vouchers, and receiving payment for them.
  • “Marrying” his Iraqi mistress while he was still married to his spouse, Kris Johnson. 
  • Forging a government document (1 count).
  • Four specifications of adultery – a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
  • Six specifications of conduct unbecoming an officer.

Johnson pled guilty to 15 out of a total of 27 counts. A number of other counts were thrown out yesterday, leaving only two counts of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman for the jury of five colonels to consider.

If convicted, Johnson could face up to 54 years in jail. He could also be stripped of his retirement benefits – and therein lies the rub: The government cannot strip COL Johnson of his retirement pay without also stripping his wife, Kris Johnson – who by all accounts is blameless, of her share of Johnson’s military pension.

Normally, even if a military couple divorces, the spouse is entitled to half of the servicemember’s retirement pay in recognition of 20+ years of service and sacrifice (subject to some caveats under individual state law). Indeed, military spouses do forgo untold professional and educational opportunities while they engage in repeated PCS moves with their sponsors – and unemployment among military spouses is over 3 times the national average, at 26 percent.

Further, to underscore the sacrifice involved, many of those military spouses who are working are working lower-wage jobs than they may otherwise be earning had they not become members of the military family.

The problem: Kris Johnson, who has committed no wrong and has been cooperative with the investigation, faces the loss of over a million dollars in pension benefits, if her husband loses his military retirement pay.

This is a problem, because it creates a powerful disincentive for military spouses to report wrongdoing. The current whistleblower protections normally afforded to employees do not apply to them. Any spouse who becomes aware that her husband (or his wife) is committing serious official misconduct, and reports it, must face the prospect of becoming impoverished in her golden years, if the retirement benefit is stripped away.

“I know spouses are told, if they know their husbands are having an affair, ‘Just keep your mouth shut,’” Kris Johnson said, according to the Fay Observer. “If he gets thrown out or dismissed, he’ll lose his retirement. Let him quietly retire so you can get your half.’ That’s tolerating unethical behavior,” she said.

The Department of Defense should create a process whereby innocent spouses receive some protection against having their economic futures devastated by the loss of this pension benefit, through no fault of their own. It is doubly important to provide this protection to military spouses who blow the whistle on official misconduct, allowing the military to purge corrupt leaders from its ranks (and make room for better leadership in these senior billets.)

There are a number of parallels in the civilian world:

First, the Internal Revenue Service does make allowances for innocent spouses, and provides for relief from penalties for unpaid taxes and unfiled returns where the evidence indicates that the spouse committed no wrongdoing or was herself deceived.

Second, pensions in the private sector are generally exempt against civil judgments and bankruptcies. While you might get sued and lose, resulting in a judgment against you for, say, $1 million, no creditor can go to your employer’s pension fund or 401(k) and force that fund to release a lump sum. They may get a charging order against the income from that pension that accrues to you, but they would have no claim against an innocent spouse.

There are a lot of military spouses watching this case closely. If Kris Johnson is hung out to dry, the government should not expect much in the way of cooperation from them in other cases, going forward. The incentives for military spouses will overwhelmingly be to look the other way and keep their mouths shut.

The Justice system may yet strip Mrs. Johnson of her retirement benefits. But since she is blameless in the whole affair, that would not be justice, by any standard.

 

What do you think a military spouse should do in this situation? Tell us in the comments.

Disabled Veteran petitions Supreme Court over benefits in divorce

Posted by Debi Teter

US Supreme CourtIn a petition filed with the Supreme Court earlier this month, a disabled veteran in Oregon is seeking a reversal of a lower court decision to count his VA disability benefits as communal property in his divorce.

At issue is whether states violate federal law when they allow divorce courts to include disability pay in calculating spousal support. 

In the divorce of Peter Barclay, an Air Force veteran, and his wife of nearly 20 years, an Oregon district court judge included considered the value of Barclay’s VA disability payments when awarding spousal pay of $1,000 per month. Barclay’s only income is from VA benefits and Social Security Disability Insurance, a tax-free amounnt of slightly more than $4,400 per month.

Barclay suffers from PTSD from his role as a first responder during the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. His PTSD made him unemployable and eligible to draw VA compensation at the 100% disabled rate.

Barclay and his attorney, Michael D.J. Eisenberg, have argued that Title 38 US Code, Section 5301(a), which makes VA disability benefits immune “from taxation, claims of creditors, attachment, levy and seizure” would also bar the inclusion of disability pay in spousal support calculations.

Eisenberg is arguing that disability pay is meant to compensate the veteran for loss of income due to a service-connected medical condition. If the veteran is married, VA compensation tables set payments higher. But that extra amount, given in recognition of the spouse’s sacrifice in living with a disabled individual, stops when the veteran gets a divorce. That should mean the spouse has no direct claim on the compensation anymore. Eisenberg stated, “It’s not like the veteran’s disability caused the spouse a military-related disability.” 

Barclay’s former spouse claims she has diabilities of her own, but Barclay and Eisenberg argue that she should receive help from state or federal programs, including Social Security Disability Insurance, rather than from VA disabiliyt benefits.

Oregon and most other states disagree, based on a 1987 Supreme Court decision which said the legislative history of the VA disability benefits shows that payments are meant to compensate both the veteran and his/her family. Further, the 1982 Uniformed Services Former Spouse Protection Act (USFSPA) allows courts to distribute “disposable” military retired pay as marital property or as alimony or child support. 

Barclay’s petition notes that the USFSPA excludes disability compensation from the definition of “net disposable income.” The petition also references a 1989 Supreme Court decision in favor of a retiree who sought to reduce his spousal support when he won a disability award from the VA. When the retiree began drawing VA benefits, it lowered his military retirement being shared with the former spouse. Barclay is a veteran but not a retiree, but still claims the protections of disability pay should extend to all veterans.

Barclay’s petition also points to three states which offer protections similar to the federal law. In Arizona, a recently passed law shields veterans’ disability benefits from alimony calculations. Texas and Vermont have laws whcih proclude VA disability benefits from being included in the division of property or in alimony calculations.

Eisenberg argues that it is time the Supreme Court addresses the states’ various interpretations and clarifies the law in favor of Barclay and other disabled veterans. 

At least four justices will have to agree to review the case. We will follow the petition and report back if the Court decides to hear arguments.

 

Which side of the argument do you agree with? Should disability compensation be solely for the veteran affected or for the spouse/family who also lived with the consequences of the disability? Let us know in the comments.