Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: Arctic pay, car sharing, free flights home included in bill addressing military suicides

Arctic pay bonuses and free flights home are part of the provisions that Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan have included in legislation to bolster the morale of Alaska troops.

Called the Don Young Warrior Act, the measures are designed to address hardships experienced by service members at Alaska bases, where the number of suicides has spiked.

The bill also calls for a military-wide audit to better understand future workforce needs for mental health counselors and social workers.

A shortage of counselors has been identified at Alaska’s Army bases, where services members may wait months to access services.

The Don Young Warrior Act was included as an amendment Thursday to the Defense Department’s fiscal 2023 spending bill, which will be heard next week in the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Sullivan, who sits on the Armed Services Committee, is expected to discuss the amendment at the hearings.

“Since coming to the Senate, ensuring Alaska’s service members and their families are properly cared for has remained one of my highest priorities,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan, a colonel in the Marine Reserves, said he has seen firsthand the rigor required of military members serving in Alaska’s harsh environment.

“It’s no secret that training and living in the Arctic can at times present challenges relative to other duty stations,” Sullivan said.

“Our legislation recognizes the critical role that Arctic warriors play in the defense of our nation and alleviates some of the hardships that are associated with living in such a remote and austere location,” Murkowski said.

The Don Young Arctic Warrior Act offers the following provisions for qualifying service members:

• Arctic pay: Troops assigned to cold weather operations or required to “maintain proficiency” in cold weather operations receive an extra $300 in pay per month.

• Internet allowance: The allowance will offset the higher costs for monthly internet service that military members pay in Alaska compared to the Lower 48 states. The allowance will be for military members by rank who have greater financial hardship.

• Free flights home: Military members with ranks of E-5 and below will have access to one free flight home during a three-year tour.

• Car sharing: A two-year pilot program establishes vehicle sharing to make it easier for military members to travel off base during free time.

• Counseling: Mental and behavioral health counselors will be granted license reciprocity to increase the number of professionals and improve access to care.

• Education: Graduate-level counseling and social work education programs will be established at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. Scholarships also will be provided.

• Retention bonuses: Clinical psychologists, social workers and counselors will be eligible for retention bonuses.

• Workforce audit: An analysis of the behavioral health workforce will be conducted to understand the numbers needed to meet demand across the military.

• Safe storage of weapons: A voluntary pilot program to promote safe storage of personal firearms will be introduced and include free lock boxes for participants.

By:  Linda F. Hersey
Source: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner