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Hagel eases way for more donations to enlisted troops

Sep. 28, 2013 - 10:47AM   |  
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Charities are finding it easier to help troops’ families since Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel changed a policy to allow junior enlisted members to accept charitable donations valued at more than $20.

“This is one of the most significant changes in 20 years to allow organizations like ours to help more people,” said Jim Knotts, president and chief executive officer for Operation Homefront, a charity that focuses on emergency financial aid and other assistance to families of deployed troops and wounded warriors.

The policy change applies to enlisted troops and enlisted Title 32 National Guard members E-6 and below, according to a May 16 memorandum signed by Hagel. Troops can accept gifts valued at more than $20 from charitable and veterans service tax-exempt organizations. As before, they can’t accept cash.

“Those who need the most help are our junior enlisted,” Knotts said.

In the past, he said, “we’ve banged on doors of installations wanting to help families,” but ran into roadblocks because installations’ Judge Advocate General’s offices said the donations would violate ethics rules. Policies varied between installations, Knotts said, but the charity has always followed JAG approval guidelines — except in cases of emergency assistance, like food.

“If a service member is standing in front of me and says he needs food for his family, even if I know that box of food is worth more than $20, I’m going to give him that food,” Knotts said.

Since the memorandum was signed, Knotts said, some JAGs have still raised red flags about donations but later agreed to them once they were shown the memo from Hagel.

Previously, it was difficult for charities to help with holiday gifts, food, clothing and other needs, said Mike Landers, president of Armed Services YMCA. “We can now legally work with the installations to identify the families in need and help where we can,” he said. “This decision was a blessing, and we can’t thank Secretary Hagel enough.”

Other requirements must be met when troops accept gifts to comply with Standards of Conduct rules and regulations. Still banned are gifts intended to influence the enlisted member in the performance of his official duties or as an improper supplement to his salary.

Service members also can’t solicit gifts from the tax-exempt organizations. Knotts said he is talking to legal officials about the nuances of this, since some service members come directly to organizations for help. “But a lot of families are referred by someone,” he said, such as a first sergeant or a family readiness group leader.

A law that took effect Dec. 30, 2005, allowed wounded troops with combat-related injuries or illnesses suffered while serving in designated combat zones or operations on or after Sept. 11, 2001, to accept gifts from nonprofit organizations, private parties and other sources outside the Defense Department — but the law was limited to those troops and did not cover others, including those deployed to war zones. That came in response to a issues raised by charities after officials at then-Walter Reed Army Medical Center warned charities that donations valued at more than $20 must undergo military legal review to ensure they conform to government ethics rules.

But the 2005 law was limited to those troops and did not include others — including those deployed to war zones. Even after the law was passed, Knotts said, there have been some questions from military attorneys about providing gifts of more than $20 to wounded troops, Knotts said.

“But we could always point to the law,” he said. “And that’s what we’re doing here. We show the rule change, and they say, ‘OK, got it. Go forward and do good things.’ ”

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