Reimbursement Program for Troops Stalls

New York Times

The Pentagon has not completed guidelines for allowing soldiers, their families and charities to be reimbursed for some combat equipment they bought for use in Iraq and Afghanistan, a year after the passage of legislation calling for such a program.

    The measure, which allows for groups and individuals to make claims of up to $1,100, called for the Department of Defense to set rules for a reimbursement program by February 2005.

    The sponsor of the original legislation, Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, says he plans to introduce an amendment to a defense bill this week to take authority for the program from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and give it to military commanders in the field.

    “We should not be sending our young men and women into harm’s way less than as well prepared as their nation can prepare them and provide them with the kind of protection they deserve,” Mr. Dodd said. “The Pentagon has never acted on this legislation despite the fact that it is the law of the land.”

    “It has been frustrating,” he said. “And the problem still persists.”

    On Friday, a Pentagon spokeswoman, Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke, said in an e-mail message that Defense Department officials were “in the final stages of putting a reimbursement program together and it is expected to be operating soon.” Colonel Krenke declined to discuss a reason for the delay.

    Army surveys have shown that infantry members spend hundreds of dollars of their own money each year on gloves, boots, flashlights and other tools used in combat.

    The reimbursement program, to be open to troops in combat zones, would cover spending on health, safety and protective equipment – items like body and vehicle armor, special hydration gear, global positioning devices and advanced combat helmets.

    Some troops in Iraq have complained that equipment is either lacking or worn, and that they sometimes do not have the necessary gear to protect them from roadside bombs and snipers.

    Sgt. Todd B. Bowers, a Marine Corps reservist attending George Washington University here, has served two tours in Iraq. Sergeant Bowers said a rifle scope and goggles that his father bought for him saved his sight when he was shot in the face by a sniper last October. Mr. Bowers spent about $900 for the equipment.

    “There are a lot of people serving in the military who do not have the income to pay for some equipment,” he said in a telephone interview. “It is not fair that those who have the money can be better prepared than others.”

    Officials in the Defense Department initially opposed the program last year, arguing that it would be a financial burden and could undermine the accountability and effectiveness of equipment used in combat.

    The Army has its own program, called the Rapid Fielding Initiative, to develop and outfit soldiers with the most modern equipment available.

    Michael P. Kline, a retired master sergeant who is executive director of the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States, said families and charities, and soldiers themselves, had had to fulfill the military obligation to provide proper combat equipment.

    “National Guard and reservists have been especially adversely impacted by the Pentagon’s decision not to move this program forward,” Sergeant Kline said. “Due to equipment shortages in the Guard, these soldiers spend a lot of money out of pocket. These patriotic men and women deserve to have their expenses reimbursed.”

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