A bill designed to halt pay to soldiers charged in violent crimes is bound to resonate with many people in the Fort Hood community.
Authored by a pair of Republican congressmen from Arkansas and West Virginia, the legislation — called the Stop Pay for Violent Offenders Act — is a direct response to the Maj. Nidal Hasan case.
Hasan, accused of killing 13 people and wounding 32 others in the Nov. 5, 2009, mass shooting at Fort Hood, continues to draw a salary from the Army at taxpayers’ expense, in accordance with the code of military justice.
In the nearly four years since Hasan was charged in the shooting, the accused shooter has drawn more than $278,000 from the government as he awaits trial.
The proposed legislation would cut off pay to soldiers charged with violent crimes — such as rape, sexual assault or capital offenses — and divert it to a fund for crime victims. It also has safeguards, providing waivers for service members who can prove they were wrongfully accused.
Though the legislation may sound like a big departure from current military justice, the bill would actually bring the military into closer compliance with the law regarding federal employees — which calls for a suspension of pay while the employee is accused.
Because of the repeated delays in Hasan’s capital murder court-martial, he has earned about 3½ years of officers pay while awaiting trial — a fact that is no doubt upsetting to the shooting survivors, as well as the victims’ families. And Hasan will continue to get paid until his likely conviction by a jury, which could take another two months.
Obviously, the current rules are set up to presume innocence on the part of the accused, at least until a verdict is rendered to the contrary. That’s fine, on its face. But a policy that authorizes continued pay for the accused can bring further anguish and trauma to the victims of a violent crime. Bottom line, it may be legal, but it’s also highly insensitive.
This is especially true in the case of Hasan, who has admitted to the shootings and on several occasions attempted to plead guilty — though that is not allowable under military law, since this is a death-penalty case.
As testimony in Hasan’s court-martial finally gets underway next week, the fact that the defendant continues to draw more than $6,000 per month is bound to be a source of frustration for many in attendance.
This is especially true for the shooting survivors and victims’ families, as many of them have been denied thousands of dollars in benefits — thanks to the Defense Department’s classification of the shooting as “workplace violence,” rather than a combat-related incident.
In fact, more than 100 victims and family members impacted by the shooting have sued the Defense Department and the Army, seeking a change in the classification to a terrorist act. The suit claims that political correctness has barred them from receiving benefits that are due them, including necessary medical care for injuries sustained in the incident.
It’s understandable why the Pentagon has stuck with the “workplace violence” label. Officials don’t want to risk negatively affecting Hasan’s court-martial before it gets off the ground.
But if and when a conviction is secured, Congress needs to right this wrong. If this was a terrorist act — and the defendant freely admits he acted to defend the Taliban in Afghanistan — then victims’ families and survivors are entitled to be compensated accordingly.
The Fort Hood area’s two congressmen, Republican Reps. John Carter of Round Rock and Roger Williams of Austin, have proposed that Congress pass the Fort Hood Victims and Families Benefits Protection Act. The measure would award all casualties of the Nov. 5, 2009, attack the same status awarded to the casualties of the 9/11 Pentagon attack. All would be eligible for the Purple Heart or the civilian award equivalent.
As a result, military casualties would receive benefits such as VA health care co-pay exemptions, preference for government jobs and college tuition breaks.
This is extremely worthwhile legislation that is deserving of bipartisan support. But as Fort Hood’s representatives in Congress, Carter and Williams should also throw their support behind the Stop Pay for Violent Offenders Act.
While it’s important to respect the rights of the accused under the law, it’s time to remember those who have suffered and lost the most — especially in the nation’s worst mass shooting on a military post. Both the stop-pay act and benefits-protection act do just that.