Overseas civilian workers’ ‘debt’ to military should be waived
— July 30, 2013
What would you do if the federal government gave you a lot of money, but several years later said it shouldn’t have and demanded you sign a document admitting that you owe it?
Now add this factor: the feds say if you sign it they’ll go through the waiver process, so you may not actually have to pay any of the money back — but there’s no guarantee that it will all work out in your favor. This appeal, you see, goes through the same federal department that said you owe the debt.
Would you sign on the dotted line? Or go find an attorney?
That’s the situation 659 civilians who are employed overseas by different military branches have been put in, because no one in the Pentagon apparently realized until two years ago that by paying them a housing allowance, it was breaking federal regulations.
DuWayne Bredvik, a civilian who is in charge of security at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany, said his outstanding tab — which he stressed was incurred through no fault of his own — is about $175,000. He said some civilian employees with 20 years or more of service overseas owe more than $1 million.
He has ties to Wyoming: His wife, Linda Sauer Bredvik, was born and raised in Cheyenne. They now live in Enkenbach, Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany. Another Cheyenne native, Chris Mahon, the assistant fire chief of operations at Ramstein, also finds himself buried in this bureaucratic nightmare. The federal government claims he owes it $96,000.
One may wonder why the Department of Defense just doesn’t issue a blanket waiver of the debt and make this whole controversy go away. Several generals are asking the same question.
Army Secretary John McHugh noted in a memo earlier this month that the erroneous payments of Living Quarter Allowances (LQA) were made because of complex U.S. Department of State Standardized Regulations and administrative processing errors. He wrote that the employees were blameless.
“The collection of these debts would be against equity and good conscience, and not in the best interests of the United States,” McHugh concluded.
While the Defense Department acknowledges that the workers are not at fault, it says without approval of a special debt waiver request, it is obligated to recoup all past housing allowance payments.
It’s too bad Joseph Heller is dead. The “Catch-22” author could have had a field day satirizing this ridiculous mess.
Bredvik said he attended a town hall meeting last week where Lt. Gen. Donald Campbell, U.S. Army Europe commander, told affected employees that he favors an alternative resolution, such as an exception that would allow workers to continue receiving housing benefits.
“I know this continues to be an emotional and stressful time for all of you,” Campbell sympathized. His words prompt another question: Does our country really want people who have incredibly stressful, specialized jobs — like being in charge of a base’s security or fighting fires — to be worried about what happens if the Department of Defense does not waive their debt?
After the Living Quarter Allowance error was discovered, Bredvik said, some Pentagon officials apparently seized on the issue as a way to further cut the nation’s defense budget. But none of the money already paid out will be recouped if the Department of Defense forgives all of the “debt.” Meanwhile, American military officials have been going to overseas bases in droves in an effort to explain the problem to workers and try to talk them into signing. That can’t be cheap.
According to a July 24 Stars & Stripes article by John Vandiver many employees are skeptical, and are waiting for either a definitive waiver or legal advice from outside the military. Some have contacted their congressional representatives back home.
If I were in these workers’ shoes, here’s one question I’d ask right off the bat: If I sign this and acknowledge this alleged debt, what will it do to my credit rating?
Linda Bredvik said her husband had been stationed in Germany before he retired from the Air Force. Their family liked living there so much — she said in many ways it reminds her of Wyoming — that Bredvik applied for and was hired at his current job as a civilian so they could stay.
“It makes sense for the Army to recruit people who are already there, who know how to do the job,” Linda Bredvik said, “rather than finding someone back in the U.S. who needs to be sent overseas. They spend a lot less money doing it this way.”
Many government employees receive a Living Quarter Allowance when they work overseas, including civilians, Department of Defense teachers and Department of State employees. But the Office of Personnel Management decided in 2011 that 659 civilian employees throughout the world, including Bredvik and Mahon, were ineligible after receiving the payments since they signed their contracts.
Linda Bredvik said the housing allowance is definitely needed by the workers and their families because there are many additional costs to living overseas. “Housing and utility costs tend to be higher, as well as the fact that rents/mortgages and utilities have to be paid in the appropriate foreign currency,” she explained. “That includes sometimes drastic fluctuations in the dollar, as well as paying exchange rate fees to exchange our dollar paychecks for foreign currencies.”
“It’s amazing,” her husband said of the entire situation. “This could be simply resolved by some leadership and action.”
The security specialist believes he has a strong case that the Department of Defense contractually made the housing allowance part of his employment. When he went to buy his house, the bank asked for and received assurance from the government that Bredvik’s Living Quarter Allowance was part of his monthly income. “I have everything documented,” he noted.
Mahon stated flatly that he owes no debt. “If the federal government uses the [waiver request] process to collect the $96,000, then the legal representation we have as a group will get the $1,000 from me to file the suit they have prepared,” he related.
If that fails, he added, “Then I will move all of my money to a bank in Europe under a different name and quit.”
“I won’t be able to return to the states, because they will hound me for collection and ruin my credit report,” Mahon predicted. “So if this does not get fixed in my favor, essentially Wyoming will lose a son, and the U.S. will lose a retired military veteran with 25 years of firefighting experience as a citizen.”
To add insult to injury, Linda Bredvik said all personnel at Ramstein have received a 20 percent pay cut due to the sequester. She doesn’t have a problem with that, because the budget reductions are affecting all American civilian employees of the Department of Defense.
“But the Germans here who are also employed by our military never received any cuts,” she noted. “In fact, some of them have gotten raises.”
Stars & Stripes’ Vandiver reports that a congressional letter-writing campaign has “begun to gain some traction, with several members of Congress taking up the issue.”
But not Wyoming’s delegation. Mahon said he’s been in contact with the staffs of Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso and Rep. Cynthia Lummis. All he’s received so far is a letter from Lummis that was hardly hopeful.
“It appears from the canned statements that she is done with this issue,” Mahon said. “The fact that my senators and congressman are not going after this like so many other senators and congressmen are leads me to believe they don’t care.”
But they should, and so should the rest of us in Wyoming. I wrote a June 4 column about the frustration of Brian Moyer, a Jackson man on a crusade to get Social Security to pay benefits to people who are terminally ill, like his late wife was, instead of having a five-month waiting period. To their credit, Enzi and Barrasso have co-sponsored a bill with Sen. Sharrod Brown, D-Ohio, that would rectify the situation for many Americans.
What Bredvik, Mahon and hundreds of other loyal government employees overseas are being asked to do is unfair, and just as in Moyer’s case, it’s a problem that should be able to be resolved quickly in a bipartisan fashion. Our delegation should take up this one, too.
— Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake is the editor-in-chief of The Casper Citizen, a nonprofit, online community newspaper. It can be viewed at www.caspercitizen.com.
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