Families of U.S. service members in Japan who voluntarily left the country after the March 11 quake are entitled to as much $21,225 in living expenses for their first month back in the United States, according to Defense Department documents and officials.
That amount, based on one adult, one teenager and one child under 12 who chose to evacuate to Honolulu, decreases to about $11,000 in months two through six the family spends in a "safe haven," the place the family has chosen to spend their time away from Japan. Military families were given their choice of destinations in the continental United States, according Eileen M. Lainez of the Defense Press Office in Washington, but evacuation to Hawaii and Alaska was considered on a case-by-case basis. Civilian dependents were given their choice of destinations in the 50 states.
The amount varies by location and cost of living and could be considerably less. While the family could get $21,225 the first month for staying in Oahu, Hawaii, and almost $15,675 if it went to Santa Barbara, California, it would be authorized $9,225 for North Dakota or rural areas of North Carolina, for example, according to Defense Department figures.
The cited amounts are maximum figures, and families only get the exact cost of their housing, according to the Stars and Stripes newspaper, which first reported on the available per diem. But families do get their full meal per diem, Stripes reported, $3,075 for the three-person family in North Dakota and $6,375 in Hawaii.
More than 5,200 family members have come back from Japan through three airports – Seattle-Tacoma International, Denver International and Travis Air Force Base outside Sacramento, California, said Army Lt. Col. Mike Humphreys at U.S. Northern Command in Colorado.
The per diem allotments are generating some controversy in the military community, according to the Stripes report.
“The part that frustrates me the most is that people are saying ‘This is a paid vacation,’ ” Stripes quotes Trina Jackson as saying at Yokota Air Base outside Tokyo. "I’ve heard people say, ‘I felt completely safe, but I left because it was a paid vacation.’ ”
Comments on the Stripes report included some questioning the government's fiscal responsibility for offering paid trips to volunteer evacuees.
"Enjoy the per diem – believe me I would be stoked if I found out I rated per diem for something like this," a commenter identified as Josh wrote. "I just think it is amazing that the government would fund all these trips and per diem during a time of cutbacks and constant talk of fiscal responsibility."
A commenter writing under "The Real Way It Is" said, "Who ever authorized this cost the taxpayers millions of dollars and a head needs to roll, we are still paying for full services at each base!"
But "A Navy Wife" writes that evacuees aren't taking advantage, but letting their service member spouses concentrate on their jobs. "I left to give him three less things to worry about," she says, referring to herself and their pets. "For you to sit there and tell me that that the reason I left was because I'm some gold digger is an insult to me, my husband and to yourself."