Military families stationed across Germany are seeing massive hikes in their utility bills caused by the conflict in Ukraine as their Pentagon-provided cost-of-living allowance has continued to decrease, causing significant financial strain around the holiday season.
The Pentagon announced in May that there would be a reduction in the overseas cost-of-living allowance, known as COLA, for families in the Kaiserslautern Military Community starting June 1 because prices in the continental U.S. are now more expensive than those in Germany.
While families were first told the decrease would be only 10 points, it has dropped by 18 index points since April, according to a COLA calculator provided by a military spouse.
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For example, a staff sergeant with one dependent has seen their cost-of-living allowance go from nearly $24 a day down to $6 a day -- or from about $356 a paycheck to $89 a paycheck -- since January.
Additionally, gas prices have risen by an average of 173% in Germany from the prior year, according to price comparison portal Check24, as a result of Russia's invasion of Ukraine earlier this year and reduced gas supplies to Europe from the Nord Stream 1 pipeline. Similarly, Check24 found electricity prices for an average household have increased around 41%.
These price hikes are hitting military families during the holiday season.
"We are in Europe -- our proximity to Ukraine is absolutely having an impact on the cost of goods and groceries," one military spouse at Ramstein Air Base, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, told Military.com on Wednesday. "There's no food pantry on base, and there are families who are already struggling to make ends meet going into the holiday season."
In May, the 86th Airlift Wing out of Ramstein issued a press release addressing the COLA cut announcement.
"Senior leaders are aware that this is poor timing for a reduction in rate, and are working to determine a way forward," Lt. Col. Micah Neece, the 86th Comptroller Squadron commander at Ramstein, said in the May 17 press release.
Officials also said in the May release that "when the strength of the dollar increases against the euro, and as the cost of goods in the U.S. rise compared to the cost of goods in the Kaiserslautern Military Community, service members can expect COLA payments to decrease."
But little information has since been communicated to families about actions taken to alleviate the financial burden, according to spouses. A Facebook Live question-and-answer session was broadcast on the 86th Airlift Wing Command Chief's page on Sept. 30, and was filled with complaints about the economic situation from commenters.
Some officials said spouses shouldn't be using COLA for expenses such as utilities or gas.
"You should not be able to afford more things as a military member when you're overseas than you can in the United States; it should be the same," Neece said during the Facebook Live video. "Your COLA shouldn't allow you to buy more than what you would've otherwise."
On Nov. 7, 86th Airlift Wing Chief Master Sgt. Charmaine Kelley posted on her Facebook page that leaders were requesting utility bills from families in hopes of getting more info to the Pentagon to alleviate financial stress.
"As a result of increases to utility costs across the KMC, the 86th Airlift Wing is requesting documentation that shows a projected increase of utility expenses above a member's alloted utility allowance," Kelley wrote. "The hope is that this data call, after [being] presented to the powers that be, can potentially drive an out-of-cycle utilities survey. ... Your respective chains of command will soon be passing down a voluntary data call to military members in the physical vicinity of Ramstein."
But some spouses have said that information isn't being clearly communicated to service members and their families.
"It's frustrating to be told that senior leaders are engaged and that they know there's a problem, but then there's no communication about what they're actually going to do," the military spouse told Military.com.
A spokesperson for the Pentagon did not immediately return a request for comment asking about the COLA decrease on Wednesday.
With approximately 50,000 service members and families, Kaiserslautern is the largest military community outside the continental U.S. It's made up of Air Force facilities located at Ramstein, Einsiedlerhof, Pirmasens, Vogelweh and Kapaun Air Station, along with Army facilities at Sembach, Kleber, Panzer and Daenner Kasernen; Landstuhl; Kirchberg; Miesau Depot; Kaiserslautern Industrial Center; Rhine Ordnance; and Pulaski Barracks.
Cost-of-living rates are, in part, determined by input from service members and their families. The most recent increase in the Kaiserslautern Military Community was based on a survey from the fall of 2021, well before Russia's invasion of Ukraine and widespread inflation in the U.S.
Additionally, spouses told Military.com that the survey came amid the Afghanistan evacuation, when service members were working around the clock to relocate and transport refugees.
Some military families are trying to find relief by flocking to on-base housing, where heating and water bills are covered. As a result, the wait list for on-base housing in the Kaiserslautern Military Community has climbed 57%, according to a report from Stars & Stripes.
Military families will see some relief from the German government starting as soon as next month. Utility subsidies will retroactively be paid to German residents in December, January and February as full measures go into effect in March, according to Bloomberg News.
Gas prices will stop at 12 cents per kilowatt hour for 80% of consumption, based on last year's usage. Power prices will be capped at 40 cents, Bloomberg News reported. Those caps will be in place through April 2024
-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.
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