Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: Pending defense priorities include addressing Alaska's soldier suicide problem

A bill poised for a vote in the U.S. Senate soon calls for unspecified special duty pay, or “Arctic Pay,” for military service in Alaska and authorizes $99 million for a physical fitness annex at Fort Wainwright.

The legislation is aimed at setting national defense priorities for the federal fiscal year that started Oct. 1 and also authorizes up to $150 million for acquisition of a commercially-available icebreaker for the U.S. Coast Guard.

The National Defense Authorization Act passed the U.S. House of Representatives in a 350-80 vote last week with Congresswoman Mary Peltola, D-Alaska, voting yes.

On Monday, U.S. Senators discussed the bill during floor proceedings but did not vote on it.

The bill reflects potential for roughly $80 billion more in defense spending compared with what was authorized for the current year.

The rate of Arctic Pay for soldiers stationed in Alaska has yet to be determined, according to Josh Wilson, interim communications director for Peltola.

A 4.6% pay increase for military troops, the largest department-wide raise in 20 years, would take effect on Jan. 1 if the legislation is signed into law.

“This bill authorizes $847.3 billion in discretionary spending for national defense for FY 2023 and makes significant quality of life improvements for our service members and their families,” reads a statement from Peltola. “I’m especially pleased that it included assistance that will directly benefit Alaska military families.”

Special duty pay is unique and is usually reserved for soldiers in combat zones, or as incentives for high-demand or specialty fields, according to military.com.

The hope is that the special duty pay would boost morale in Alaska. Last year, the Army 11th Airborne Division in Alaska identified 17 deaths by suicide among its ranks. This year, there were six confirmed or suspected suicides of soldiers through mid-November.

The Don Young Warrior Act, sponsored by U.S. Senators Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski, both R-Alaska, is aimed at boosting soldier quality of life in Alaska and includes a free plane ticket home for soldiers ranked E-5 and below, funding for a pilot car-sharing program and retention bonuses for clinical psychologists, social workers and counselors.

Provisions from the Don Young Arctic Warrior Act were included in H.R. 7776, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023.

Peltola had requested in letters to the House and Senate Armed Services Committees that provisions from the warrior act be included in the defense authorization act, according to a news release.

By:  Amanda Bohman
Source: Fairbanks Daily News Miner