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Pentagon planned 63% cut to Hawaii troops’ living allowances as billions flow to Ukraine

Hawaii Air National Guard F-22 Raptors taxi down the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam flight line Dec. 11, 2018, during exercise Sentry Aloha. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Airman John Linzmeier)
September 22, 2022

U.S. troops stationed in Hawaii were told this month they’d soon see a 62.5 percent cut in their overseas cost-of-living allowance (COLA) at a time when the U.S. is sending billions in aid to Ukraine, dealing with high inflation, and a potential recession. Last week, however, the Pentagon said it reversed that decision.

Members of the Hawaii-based 352d Cyberspace Operations Squadron were among those who got a memo about the plans to cut their COLA pay. A copy of that memo was first obtained and published Sept. 15 by TerminalCWO, a popular social media handle that shares military whistleblower claims, leaks and complaints.

The leaked memo reads:

You may have heard about an upcoming decrease in Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) for Oahu. The leadership team wanted to provide the latest information to ensure the facts are known and our ‘Ohana can properly prepare. The bottom line, Oahu will see a 10 point COLA index reduction, which equates to an estimated 62.5% cut. The decrease will not occur over one pay period and INDOPACOM is working to request a delay in when this will take effect. In addition, the entire amount will not be reduced over one pay period, it will be spaced out over 5 months (2 pt decrease per month) until the full amount is reached. The leadership team, to include the key spouses, are working to pull together a list of resources around the base and the island of Oahu that could help offset this cut. Please use this time to plan for the reduction, revisit your budget, and adjust as appropriate. As additional information is released we will be sure to share it.

A few additional points to consider and locations to find more information:

– Calculator

– – COLA Facts/Information

– The military is projected a 4.6% pay raise in CY2023 (factor into your budget),

– When the Living Pattern Survey’s (LPS) are made available, please take them seriously as they determine adjustments in COLA (increases and decreases)

–COLA is not influenced by inflation

We’re here for any questions you may have, if we aren’t able to answer it we’ll certainly be sure to find the right source who can.

DOMENIC MAGAZU III, Lt Col, USAF Commander, 352d Cyberspace Operations Squadron

While the memo showed just one specific unit this COLA cut would have impacted, a Hickam Air Force Base spokesperson said servicemembers from all U.S. military service branches in Hawaii would have been impacted by these cuts.

“We were informed it would have been Marines, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard and so on,” the spokesperson said on Friday.

The military provides COLA pay to offset living costs in high-cost areas. For service members stationed in Hawaii, Alaska and other bases outside the contiguous United States, COLA is a non-taxable allowance.

The described cuts to living allowances for U.S. troops in Hawaii comes as the U.S. has approved more than $50 billion in aid for Ukraine. In March, Congress approved $13.7 billion in an emergency tranche of funding to arm and support Ukraine against Russia’s invasion. In May, Congress approved another $40 billion Ukraine aid package.

The described COLA cuts would also come at a time when the U.S. economy is dealing with record-high inflation. The Consumer Price Index (CPI) — which is one measure of inflation — hit a 40-year of 9.1 percent in June and was at 8.3 percent through the end of August.

The economic struggles are so prevalent that the Sergeant Major of the Army (SMA) Michael Grinston sent out guidance that “service members and their families may be eligible” for food stamps.

The Pentagon ultimately reversed these plans to cut COLA for troops in Hawaii.

“No decision has been made to implement a change to COLA for Hawaii,” said Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman, a Department of Defense spokesperson in a statement Friday. “The Department and leaders at INDOPACOM are still reviewing the information collected in the recent Living Pattern Survey and Retail Price Schedule.”

Troops in Hawaii were told the DoD would conduct a new out-of-cycle Living Pattern Survey to reassess COLA pay going forward.

After the leaked memo had already been out for hours, a Pentagon official announced the COLA cuts they described would not be going into effect at this time.

Following the DoD’s reversal, TerminalCWO shared another leaked internal memo from the Air Force’s 15th Wing in Hawaii, notifying Airmen of the withdrawn order to cut COLA. The account also shared a meme mocking the DoD.

Even after the planned COLA cuts were reversed, TerminalCWO said the attitude among troops in Hawaii is “dismal at best given the lack of housing available on base/post, cost of living for purchasing essentials is astronomical, commissaries cannot keep stocked, what is stocked is usually expired, people are barely making it.”