Wainwright officials explain COLA policies during deployments
March 4, 2011
FORT WAINWRIGHT, Alaska - Since Fort Wainwright is considered an overseas location, Soldiers stationed here receive a cost of living allowance monthly to help offset the cost of goods and services in the area. This allowance is calculated based on the Soldier's rank, years of service and number of dependents and can represent a significant portion of Soldiers' monthly pay.
Wainwright Soldiers are most likely accustomed to seeing COLA in their monthly pay, but may not realize that the amount they receive reflects how many dependents they have in the local area as well as their other information.
With many Fort Wainwright Soldiers deploying this year, Wainwright finance officials and rear detachment commanders are working to ensure Soldiers and families have a clear understanding of how their COLA will be affected by the choices family members make about where to live and how long to travel during their Soldier's deployment.
The issue, according to William French, Fort Wainwright's Military Pay chief, involves the adjustment necessary when family members of deployed Soldiers leave the local area during a deployment.
"When command-sponsored dependents leave the local area and are gone for more than 30 days, the COLA needs to be reduced to the zero - without dependent rate," French explained. "The Soldier is entitled to the COLA no matter what as long as he is assigned here - even while deployed, so it's just the dependent rate that needs to be adjusted in this case."
French said Soldiers will still receive the bulk of their COLA even if their family members leave the area for an extended amount of time during the deployment. The adjustment is necessary since it is only authorized to supplement expenses while living in Alaska and could constitute a government fraud offense if Soldiers continue receiving the full rate even after their family members have left the local area. This applies whether family members are moving away for the entire deployment or if they're just going home for an extended visit. Any time away longer than 30 days must be reported, he said.
"We want to prevent overpayments so Soldiers are not hit with a large debt all at once," he said. "If we find out that a Soldier's dependents left the area for more than 30 days we will collect the money at that time and they will owe it in full. This could be a real hardship for military families."
Soldiers and family members can verify how much their COLA will change if family members leave the area for more than 30 days during a deployment by visiting http://www.defensetravel.dod.mil/site/colaCalc.cfm.
Following the prompts, enter Alaska, then Fort Wainwright, the number of dependents, years of service and rank to determine the current COLA rate. To determine the new amount if family members leave the area for more than 30 days of the deployment, mark "0" on the dependent section, French said.
"I don't know all the factors of why someone wouldn't report that their dependents were leaving," he said. "It could be that they didn't know or a Soldier didn't notify the chain of command or it could be that they decide to lie about it. But if we do find out that this has occurred, we notify the chain of command and any higher command necessary to take care of the issue. If it is determined that it happened we will make the corrections and we will satisfy the debt accordingly with the Soldier and the chain of command."
Doing the right thing when it comes to COLA is easy, he said.
The process begins when a spouse notifies the rear detachment that she or he is planning to leave the state for a period longer than 30 days, said Maj. Matthew Hall, rear detachment commander for 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division.
"The rear detachment will request the spouse come in and assist in preparing the proper documentation for the COLA change," he said. "Once the family member returns to the area, the rear detachment will simply need some type of proof of their return to the state to prepare to change the COLA rate back to the full amount."
Representatives from unit rear detachments and the installation Finance Office said they plan to work together to ensure Soldiers and families are well taken care of during the upcoming deployments.
Keeping family readiness group contacts and unit rear detachments updated about their travel plans even if families are away less than 30 days is also very important, Hall said. "It is critical that families notify their rear detachment, their FRG leader and their Family Readiness Support Assistant anytime they leave the area for any extended time wither in state or out of state. This greatly assists in passing information to the family as well as locating them if needed," he said.