Military families in Alaska are under increasing financial stress as inflation drives up prices, and the state’s influential congressional delegation is pressing the Department of Defense for special Arctic region assistance.
Food security for families is at the top of the the priority list along with help with purchasing cold weather gear, but three items important for morale are also important: One is a special allowance to offset Alaska’s high cost of internet access; a second is assistance for an annual morale-building trip home to visit family, and a third is child care, Alaska U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said in an interview.
Child care is a nationwide problem that is made more extreme in Alaska due to the remote location of military installations and, except for JBER in Anchorage, the small size of nearby communities.
“I held a ‘listening session’ at Fort Wainwright with female soldiers earlier this year and every conversation wound up with worries over child care,” Murkowski said.
One positive development is that a $31 million new center for children is now being developed at Fort Wainwright, in addition to a new one for Coast Guard families in Kodiak that will replace an older, smaller facility that is in a tsunami zone.
The nutrition problem is the most vexing, however. “It’s heartbreaking to be to see so many of our military families falling short on basic necessities like food and having to go to local food banks,” Murkowski said.
“Our military families have enough to worry about as they defend our nation and should not have to rely on food banks or food pantries to put food on the table,” Murkowski said. The food security problem is not isolated to Alaska although it is exacerbated in the state because of Alaska’s general high cost of living.
Murkowski is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and is in a position to do something about this. In addition, Alaska U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, has influence as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Murkowski, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, Democrat of Illinois, and 12 other senators have introduced the “Military Hunger Prevention Act” to aid service members struggling with food insecurity by eliminating an unintended barrier to assistance.
The act would exclude the Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH)—a subset of military compensation intended to cover the costs of off-base housing—from income calculations used to determine Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) eligibility.
Currently many military families are excluded from SNAP because of the way benefit eligibility is calculated. When the BAH is included many military families become ineligible.
“This (change) addresses the issue of military hunger by providing service members immediate access to an established (food assistance) program, but is only one step in the process as we generate longer-term solutions,” Murkowski said.
Sen. Duckworth added her support: “Far too many of our military families are going hungry because of unintended barriers that make them unable to access essential nutrition assistance programs that they should be eligible for,” Duckworth said.
“As someone whose family relied on these nutrition programs after my father lost his job, and who served in the uniform for most of my adult life, I’m proud to (support) this bipartisan legislation that builds on the progress we made in last year’s defense bill on helping make sure our servicemembers and their families have enough to eat,” the senator said.
Military personnel did get a 2.3 percent pay raise last year when the federal “omnibus” budget legislation passed Congress. Murkowski helped engineer this in her position on the appropriations committee. However, the two Alaska senators want more in the way of special allowances for hardship postings like Alaska, particularly for Fort Wainwright and Eielson Air Force Base in the Interior, where winter weather is severe.
“While Remote and Austere Conditions Assignment Incentive Pay, a one-time, $1,000 to $2,000 adjustment allowance for service members, and double for those with dependents is an improvement, we believe that existing compensation policies do not adequately offset the high costs of living in Alaska for junior enlisted,” personnel, Murkowski, Sullivan and California Congresswoman Jackie Speier, a Democrat, wrote in an April letter to Army Secretary Christine Wormuth.
What also drives down morale among Alaska service personnel, particularly in the junior ranks, is expensive and limited internet service provider options. “Service members must pay nearly $200 per month for adequate internet without onerous data caps,” Murkowski and Sullivan wrote in the letter.
An annual trip home to visit family would also boost morale, they wrote.
“Most junior enlisted soldiers cannot afford flights to visit their families outside of Alaska, which can cost upwards of $2,000 for airfare during the summer and Christmas block leave periods. Furthermore, soldiers told us that they cannot always get leave approved for trips outside of block leave periods which usually only occur around the major holidays,” the senators said.
There are solutions, Murkowski, Sullivan and Speier wrote. “Many options should be considered to better address the high cost of living in Alaska, target relief to junior enlisted personnel, and incentivize service in Alaska as a priority location that develops skills critical to the National Defense Strategy” the letter said.
The options include establishing a monthly special ‘Arctic Pay’ of $300 per month for all soldiers permanently stationed in Alaska, establishing a special monthly allowance to offset the difference between the cost of an uncapped internet plan in Alaska and the average monthly internet cost in CONUS (continental U.S.), and reimbursing soldiers and their dependents for airfare for at least one trip home per tour in Alaska.
Murkowski and Sullivan asked Secretary Wormuth to develop a plan for this. “Please provide the Army’s plan to address the financial pressure on junior enlisted soldiers and incentivize service in Alaska,” the senators wrote.