Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan ordered to return danger pay
(OTTAWA CITIZEN) Canadian soldiers in northern Afghanistan are being forced to return danger pay they had previously been awarded, the Citizen has learned.
The troops, training the Afghan military in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, are required to pay back the government between $900 and $1,600 each, depending on the individual’s pay.
About 30 Canadian soldiers are now in Mazar-i-Sharif, but the repayments will affect about 100 soldiers who have worked at that location training Afghans between June 1, 2012 and Feb. 3, 2013.
The decision, made by the Canadian Forces and Defense Department, to order the soldiers to reimburse the government for danger pay they had already received is separate from complaints over the last two weeks that troops in Kabul were having their hazard pay reduced. The military was forced to retreat on the Kabul decision after news reports sparked a public backlash.
Soldiers working in Mazar-i-Sharif contacted the Citizen to say they were told by their commanders that they were being paid too much hardship and hazard pay and would have to reimburse the money as soon as possible. The soldiers, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from their superiors, said they felt betrayed.
“In accordance with Treasury Board regulations, the recovery of an overpayment is required as soon as practicable,” the Defence Department confirmed in an email sent to the Citizen. “It is important to note that this issue is based on an earlier decision by the Departmental Hardship and Risk Committee and is separate and distinct from recent stories about Hardship and Risk.”
According to DND, a departmental committee was convened during the spring of 2012 to evaluate the hardship and risk pay rates for a number of operations, including the troops working at Camp Spann in Mazar-i-Sharif. The committee determined the soldiers would be paid a lower rate of hardship and risk pay than that being paid to Canadian troops in Kabul.
But the rates weren’t instituted in June 2012 because of an administrative error.
“Based on information provided by the deployed Task Force, the administrative error was discovered after personnel had received overpayment of the risk and hardship allowance,” the DND email explained. “It was therefore not a reduction in level, but rather that the established rate was never properly implemented and personnel had been overpaid.”
DND says risk and hardship rates can vary, depending on when soldiers are deployed and where they are sent. For instance, the comfort levels of soldiers can be significantly different in different locations. The department did not explain why Mazar-i-Sharif is considered safer than Kabul.
Northern Afghanistan has been relatively peaceful over the years, but in the last few years it has seen an increase in violence. In 2012, a suicide bomber killed a high-profile anti-Taliban politician and 22 other guests at a wedding reception. In February, gunmen in Mazar-i-Sharif tried to assassinate a member of the Iranian consulate. In 2011, seven United Nations workers were killed in an attack in the city.
At the time of the UN attack, then military spokesman Brig.-Gen. Richard Blanchette played down the dangers to Canadians in Mazar-i-Sharif.
“The level of risk in these areas is very much comparable to Kabul,” he said. “If we are sending our personnel there it is because we feel this is where they can have the most important impact in terms of the quality of training.”
NDP defense critic Jack Harris described the DND decision to ask for repayment of the hazard money as outrageous. He said Afghanistan is still a country at war and NATO soldiers are still being killed there. Harris also noted that Afghan soldiers have on a number of occasions turned on their western trainers and gunned them down.
“This is really about the Defense Department losing its way when it comes to saving money,” said Harris.
“They chase after these military personnel to give back their danger pay but then don’t think twice about spending lavishly on a new headquarters,” he added, referring to the DND’s proposed move to the former Nortel campus in Ottawa.
According to the DND email, “The Government of Canada is committed to ensuring that all Canadian Armed Forces members and their families receive fair remuneration and support for their hard work and service, especially when they are called upon to go into harm’s way.”