Wisconsin Congressmen Fight for Soldiers' Lost Benefits
February 1, 2012
In The News
By Matt Smith
Three Wisconsin lawmakers introduced legislation Wednesday afternoon trying to ensure dozens of Wisconsin National Guard soldiers receive thousands of dollars they were once promised.
Nationwide, hundreds of soldiers are waiting on benefits they were once told they'd receive.
Senator Herb Kohl along with Congressmen Ron Kind and Tom Petri call it a "negligent miscalculation."
After 21 years with the Wisconsin National Guard, Carrie Nitz found retirement four years ago this spring.
Two tours to Iraq, New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina, even Washington DC to accompany her employer, Oshkosh Truck.
"I had to get a party dress and everything. The Freedom Award it was," she says, showing us photographs.
What Nitz and an estimated 80 Wisconsin National Guard soldiers are still missing is tied up in red tape.
"The biggest thing I think would be frustration," Nicole Middleton, Wisconsin National Guard (retired), said.
When the Oshkosh-based 1157th returned from Iraq in 2007, a new Army program was launching, providing extra pay or leave days for service members bearing multiple back-to-back deployments.
Members of the 1157th learned about it two-and-a-half years later in a letter from the Army.
"You fill out the paperwork off of the first letter and you get sent a check or direct deposit," Richard Vander Sande, Wisconsin National Guard (retired), recalled.
Nitz was under the impression they would receive money. "Yeah, definitely. When you get a phone call like that or paperwork like that saying, hey, we need this information so we can get you this money, of course you feel like you're going to get it, and you've earned it."
Nitz estimates she's owed $7,600.
Vander Sande from Plymouth, $5,400.
Middleton from Oshkosh, $6,600.
"It was like a back and forth saying, yeah, you're going to get it; no, you're not going to get it; and then the last word we heard was it wasn't going to happen," Middleton said.
The Army acknowledges some soldiers have been paid -- those mixed up between the program's creation and implementation -- but members of the 1157th returned home just days after a government cut-off for those payouts.
"If we would have come back 10 days earlier, we would have got the money and it would be over," Vander Sande said.
Soldiers were then told the only option became extra time off their next deployment.
The Army said it was never the intent for cash payouts and suspended further payments.
For retired veterans like Nitz, Vander Sande, and Middleton, the benefits were lost -- with no understanding why they aren't getting it, Nitz said.
Soldiers have since pleaded with lawmakers.
The legislation introduced Wednesday would not only ensure dozens of Wisconsin National Guard soldiers be paid but an estimated 600 soldiers nationwide.
"We are working as hard as we can -- on a daily basis if necessary -- to get this done, to get them what they deserve. They are people in the National Guard who sacrifice greatly to serve our country," Senator Kohl (D-Wisconsin) said.
Similar legislation was introduced last year by Senator Kohl. It didn't pass because one lawmaker voted against the measure.
This Wisconsin delegation says it will work all year to ensure this legislation does pass.
While the dollar amount for these soldiers would be nice, they say it's more the principle and symbolism, still questioning if they'll see the money they were once told they earned.
"I hope," Nitz said. "Yeah. I pray."
Meantime, members of the 1157th are deploying again to Kuwait. There's a sendoff celebration Saturday at 11 A.M. at the EAA Eagle Hangar in Oshkosh, involving some of the same soldiers tied up in this mess.