Bill to restore benefits to 157 separated Air Force officers gains steam

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Montana Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg has been attempting to right a perceived wrong committed against 157 now-former Air Force officers involuntarily dismissed late last year.

According Rehberg, the 157 officers — each with more than 15 years of service, many of those in combat — were terminated short of their retirement dates without promised pension or medical benefits due to the administration’s cuts to defense spending.

Rehberg has introduced a bill, the Keep America’s Promises Act, to take existing federal law, the Temporary Early Retirement Authority — recently reauthorized with the National Defense Authorization Act, and extend it to cover the 157 officers and provide them with full benefits.

“Literally everyone in the military is covered by TERA, except these 157,” said Josh Flynn-Brown, an attorney representing some of the officers through Chapman University’s AMVETS Legal Clinic, which first brought the issue to public attention.

“They were separated 30 November 2011 and TERA was reactivated in the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act it was enacted by Congress in late December and signed into law by the president in early January, so they missed it by a few weeks,” said Flynn-Brown.

The bill would retroactively provide the separated airmen with retirement benefits. It was introduced in February, and has been gaining support, including approval from veterans groups such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Military Officers Association of America and AMVETS National.

“In the battlefield, our men and women in uniform operate under the principle that you don’t leave anyone behind,” said Rehberg at the legislation’s roll-out. “How can our grateful society do any differently when it comes to honoring the commitments we made to those soldiers? Yet, that’s exactly what’s happening right now for 157 Air Force Officers who found their careers cut short and their pensions eliminated. Congress recently passed legislation to prevent this from happening in the future, but we can’t leave these officers behind. We’ve got to keep the promises we make.”

At the time of the announcement of 157 terminations, the Air Force explained to TheDC that the cuts were necessary due to budget constraints.

“While a difficult choice to make, these involuntary reductions were necessary for the Air Force to effectively balance its force to meet congressionally authorized end-strength since, in Fiscal Year 2011 alone, the Air Force projected to have 1400 officers excess to programmed requirements,” Lt. Col John L. Dorrian wrote in an email to TheDC.

The Air Force has further noted that it did provide the 157 officers with benefits upon their release.

“Each of the 157 officers are entitled to, and will receive, separation pay in accordance with 10 U.S.C. § 1174(d),” Dorrian added. “This statute affords these officers compensation in the amount of 10 percent of the product of (A) years of active service and (B) 12 times the final monthly basic pay… In addition to this separation pay, the 157 officers are receiving post-separation transition benefits and services.”

AMVETS legal clinic, however, argues that these are not the full benefits they would have received had they been allowed to retire on time. In December the group notified the Air Force of its intention to sue on behalf of the 157 officers. If the bill does not pass the group intends to proceed with litigation.

“All options are on the table right now. If we have to litigate this we will,” said Flynn-Brown. “But right now, the legislation, H.R. 3904 has a lot of momentum, so our focus is on that.”

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Caroline May