Nearly 500 members of the Massachusetts Army National Guard have been stationed in Kosovo since last fall, helping to keep the peace in a volatile region while earning an extra $225 a month in tax-free combat pay.
But now the Pentagon is considering whether that duty, largely overshadowed by the Iraq war, no longer qualifies for "imminent danger pay" and should be reclassified midway through the soldiers' deployment.
In response, the entire state congressional delegation yesterday sent a letter to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates that vehemently urged him to cancel the review.
"Adding undue financial burdens on our soldiers' economic benefits in the middle of their deployment is wrong," US Senator John F. Kerry said in a statement. "When these brave men and women signed on for their service, they were told one thing, and now they're being told another."
The Massachusetts Guard members are not scheduled to come home until December.
"They're telling them the job they did yesterday isn't that important today," said Marcy Maloney of Stoughton, whose husband, Specialist Kevin Maloney, is based near Pristina, Kosovo. "These guys are sacrificing so much. People are having babies while these guys are gone. It's like a kick while you're down."
Maloney, who is the mother of 3- and 6-year-old children, said her husband was informed by the Defense Department that a decision to withdraw combat status from operations in the Balkans could occur by April 1. If such a change occurs, Maloney said, her husband's pay would be cut by almost 25 percent when hazardous-duty pay and tax exemptions on his regular pay and other benefits are combined.
"It's such a huge chunk," said Maloney, whose husband works as an armed security guard and firefighter at the Pilgrim nuclear plant in Plymouth. "We wouldn't be able to make a ton of money, but we were going to make it."
Maloney, who had been working part time, said she now devotes her efforts to bringing public attention to the possible pay cut. Maloney is the family-readiness coordinator for her husband's Middleborough-based unit, Troop A of First Squadron, 182d Cavalry.
The Massachusetts contingent constitutes almost one-third of the 1,700 US troops assigned to Kosovo. Maloney said her husband has not reported a drop in violence in Kosovo, a province of Serbia, in the four months he has been stationed there.
"They've had explosions, and there have been [local] people killed," Maloney said in a telephone interview. "It's definitely not a quiet place."
Efforts in Kosovo to gain independence from Serbia have flared into sporadic violence. In Pristina last month, two protesters were killed by rubber bullets fired by United Nations police during a demonstration against a UN plan for the province. US soldiers continue to face dangers in their confrontations with drug smugglers.
A withdrawal of combat status for the region would also place a new financial burden on soldiers returning to the United States on leave. If the designation is changed, troops suddenly would have to pay for what had been free flights home.
Major Winfield Danielson, spokesman for the Massachusetts National Guard, said the families often budget their household expenses based on the service members' pay when they are deployed. "If that changes, it obviously will present difficulties for the families," he said.
The Massachusetts soldiers in Kosovo represent most of the state's guardsmen deployed overseas. According to Danielson, 320 others are serving in Iraq and 10 are in Afghanistan, out of the Guard's total strength of 7,900 soldiers and airmen.
Defense Department officials declined yesterday to comment on the review until the process is completed.
"At a time when we are asking more of our National Guardsmen and women than ever before, we should be focusing on how we can alleviate the burden on these brave men and women and their families, not add to it," US Representative Stephen F. Lynch, a Democrat from South Boston who serves on the House subcommittee on national security and foreign relations, said in a statement. "The administration should be ashamed of this move, which would hurt those who have sacrificed the most ."
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at email@example.com.