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‘Absolutely Fed Up’: Senator Mulls Ways to Force Pentagon to Boost Incentive Pay for Guardsmen and Reservists

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Two and a half years ago, Congress passed a law guaranteeing National Guardsmen and reservists would get the same amount of incentive pay for special skills as their active-duty counterparts.

But the Pentagon still has not implemented that law, and one of the key senators who advocated for the change says her patience is running out.

In an interview this week with Military.com, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., suggested that the Pentagon has until the Senate Armed Services Committee debates its annual defense policy bill next month to show her some progress, or else she’ll move to force the Defense Department’s hand.

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“I am absolutely fed up,” said Duckworth, a retired Army National Guard lieutenant colonel. “I know when I’m being slow-rolled, and I’m being slow-rolled on this because active duty doesn’t want to provide the same benefits to our Guard and reserve troops.”

Duckworth would not elaborate on specific ways she is considering to force the Pentagon to follow the law. But lawmakers have a number of levers they can pull to increase pressure on the department to act. For example, Congress will often insert language in the annual defense bill to withhold a small amount of funding from the Pentagon until it corrects its delinquency.

At issue is a provision included in the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, that Congress passed and the president signed into law in December 2021.

The provision required the Pentagon to “pay a member of the reserve component of an armed force incentive pay in the same monthly amount as that paid to a member in the regular component of such armed force performing comparable work requiring comparable skills.”

The bonuses can add hundreds of dollars a month to a service member’s paycheck and often are given when troops must get specialized training or perform duties that put them at greater risk.

The difference between pay for reserve forces and active-duty forces can be stark. For example, both active-duty and reserve paratroopers are required to keep up their skills with at least one jump every three months, but reservists get only $5 per month compared to $150 for active-duty members.

Duckworth said she’s heard from National Guard Bureau Chief Gen. Daniel Hokanson that the disparity is a top concern for Guardsmen deciding whether to stay in uniform.

“Frankly, they are short-changing our reserve forces, and you’re going to lose people out of the reserve,” she said.

Before increasing the pay, the NDAA required the Pentagon to submit a report to Congress detailing its implementation plan and certifying that increasing the incentive pay for reserve components would not negatively affect force structure.

That report was delivered to Congress, albeit six months late. In the report, the Pentagon raised concerns that some active-duty service members could leave for the reserves if incentive pay were increased and that the law as written would require the DoD to offer new incentive payments to the reserves that are needed only for active-duty service members.

Boosting incentive pay for reserve components could cost $546 million annually and affect about 84,601 Guardsmen and reservists, according to the report. Some active-duty members could also get increased bonuses under the law, the report said, adding another $57.7 million to the cost.

“The department continues to believe that prorating monthly [special and incentive] pays is an appropriate and equitable manner for compensating service members performing full and part-time duty,” according to the report, a copy of which was obtained by Military.com. “Paying these additional amounts would provide a benefit to more members but would result in a significant additional cost.”

The report interpreted the law more broadly than Congress intended by factoring in some wide-ranging recruiting and retention bonuses. So, in last year’s NDAA, Congress tweaked the requirement to more specifically target incentive pay for special skills and training.

For Duckworth, the change in last year’s NDAA means there’s no more reason for the Pentagon to delay. But the department is now conducting another study on the effects of increasing incentive pay for reserve forces, a department official told senators at a hearing this month.

While the last study focused on whether the structure of the active duty would be hurt by increasing pay for reserve components, the new study is looking at how boosting pay will affect recruiting and retention for the Guard and reserves, said Ashish Vazirani, acting under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

“I promise you we’re not slow-rolling,” Vazirani said at the hearing. “We’re really trying to be deliberate. It’s a complex issue. We want to do it in a deliberate and thorough manner. There are a number of different pays that can be affected, and we want to be sure that we’re doing this in a correct way.”

That answer infuriated Duckworth.

“If a guy’s jumping out of an aircraft three times in one weekend but only gets one-thirtieth of the pay as another person who jumps out of that same aircraft three times the same weekend, there’s no study needed,” she said in her interview with Military.com. “I understand that in some cases there may be more complex situations that have to do with retention pay and how you calculate it, but when it comes to something like jump pay or flight pay, they can move on that now.”

At the very least, Duckworth is demanding the Pentagon provide a concrete timeline for finishing the latest study. Her deadline for getting that answer is the second week of June, when the Senate Armed Services Committee considers this year’s NDAA.

“I’m going to be their worst nightmare on this,” she vowed. “It’s entirely unacceptable, and our service members deserve better, and I’m going to keep pushing until every reservist receives the pay they have earned and deserve.”

“I’m giving them an opportunity to respond” with a timeline for the new study, she added. “But certainly for me, everything is on the table. And if I have to throw some sharp elbows come this NDAA, then I will.”

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