Pay Bumps to Counter Suicides in Alaska and on Ships in Yard 'Unnecessary,' According to White House

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Soldiers in Alaska observe Donnelly Drop Zone.
Soldiers in Alaska observe Donnelly Drop Zone prior to a Joint Forcible Entry Operation as part of Joint Pacific Multinational Range Center 22-02, March 11, 2022. (Army photo/John Pennell)

The Biden administration is coming out against a House plan to give extra pay to soldiers in the Arctic and sailors aboard ships undergoing major construction, arguing the law already allows for stipends in special situations.

The proposals for Arctic pay and complex overhaul pay, approved by the House Armed Services Committee last month, were spurred by waves of suicides among service members in Alaska and on the aircraft carrier USS George Washington.

But in a statement released Tuesday, the White House said it "opposes these proposed pays because they are unnecessary, as current law provides sufficient authority for special duty pays."

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"The Administration appreciates the Committee's concern for members assigned to difficult assignments and is committed to working with the Congress to ensure members have access to appropriate living arrangements during these extended periods in the shipyard," the statement added.

The statement comes ahead of the House's expected debate later this week on a sweeping annual defense policy bill known as the the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA.

Included in the bill are provisions that would provide new $200 monthly stipends to sailors on ships undergoing nuclear refueling and complex overhauls and $300 monthly stipends to service members "assigned to perform cold weather operations."

Lawmakers have said they included those stipends to help alleviate the military's epidemic of suicides. The extra pay is among several proposals targeting quality-of-life issues, including ones to require the Navy to offer paid moves to sailors assigned to ships undergoing a complex overhaul, a process that can take years, and the Pentagon to pay for airfare for service members and dependents in Alaska who are not from the state to take at least one trip home per three-year tour.

At least six sailors assigned to the George Washington have died by suicide in the past year, though sailors have told Military.com that the ship's commanding officer told them that there were 10 suicides aboard the ship between July 2021 and April 2022.

The ship has been undergoing a complex overhaul at the Newport News shipyard in Virginia since 2017 and is not expected to be done until early 2023 -- longer than the typical four-year timeline for refueling a nuclear reactor and taking care of other repairs and upgrades. Sailors have described unbearable living conditions aboard the ship while it's been undergoing construction, and lawmakers have faulted the Navy for being unaware of quality-of-life concerns until news of the deaths became public.

Meanwhile, in Alaska, at least 11 soldiers died by suicide last year, with another six deaths under investigation. That was up from seven soldier suicides in 2020 and eight in 2019.

Lawmakers and other leaders have in part blamed the socially isolating nature of work in a remote location such as Alaska, as well as a lack of resources for the Arctic mission and long wait times for mental health appointments.

The White House's opposition to the stipends came in a larger, seven-page statement on the administration's position on the House's version of the NDAA as a whole.

In general, the White House said it "strongly supports" passage of an NDAA this year. But the statement also listed several gripes with the bill as it stands now.

Among its concerns, the administration "strongly opposes" so-called inflation bonuses for Defense Department civilians.

The House version of the NDAA would give both service members and Defense Department civilians making less than $45,000 a 2.4% bonus in 2023 to help cope with inflation, which is currently above 8%. The bonuses would be on top of 4.6% pay raises next year.

The White House statement says nothing about the administration's position on inflation bonuses for troops. But for Pentagon civilians, the statement said inflation bonuses "would create significant pay inequities among Federal civilian employees."

The administration also reiterated its "strong" opposition to a Space National Guard.

As it would have last year, the House's version of the NDAA would create a National Guard component for the Space Force. The White House also opposed the idea last year, and it ultimately did not make it into the version of the bill signed into law. The Department of the Air Force has proposed "part-time" Guardians instead of a Space National Guard, but Guard leaders have voiced concerns about that idea.

In its statement Tuesday, the White House backed the part-time Guardian proposal.

"This construct would ensure uninterrupted access to crucial operational surge capacity and combat depth, and serve as a valuable retention and recruiting tool for both existing and prospective military members," the statement said. "The Administration looks forward to working with the Congress to enact the Space Force's new military construct and urges the Congress not to create a new, potential [sic] costly bureaucracy with far-reaching and enduring implications."

Meanwhile, the White House said it "strongly supports" a provision that would move sexual harassment prosecutions outside the chain of command, but asked for "clarifications."

Last year's NDAA created independent prosecutors to handle sexual assault and some other related or serious crimes, rather than commanders, but left out sexual harassment from the covered crimes.

In its statement, the White House said the independent prosecutors should handle only sexual harassment cases that are the subject of a formal complaint and substantiated after an independent investigation. Doing so, the statement argued, would ensure there is not an "unintended effect of delaying swift action to address sexual harassment for a complainant who wants to pursue informal reporting options, or deter reporting by those victims who do not wish to become part of criminal investigation or prosecution processes."

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

Related: Congress Eyes Extra Pay to Counter Wave of Suicides in Alaska and on Ships in the Yard

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