WASHINGTON -- They've sent out letters and fliers and have Tweeted and pleaded, but Pentagon officials are still struggling to give away a huge cache of money to troops and veterans.
The Defense Department said Tuesday that as of last week it had spent only $300 million of $534 million approved by Congress as special pay for servicemembers forced after Sept. 11, 2001, to serve beyond their enlistment terms -- a controversial practice called "stop-loss."
The money was approved in 2009 and troops were supposed to claim it by October. But Congress has just extended the deadline for a fourth time -- to March 18.
Extensive efforts by the Pentagon, White House, Congress and the Veterans Affairs Department to get people to file claims for the money have included letters to the last known mailing addresses of all 145,000 believed eligible and a public service announcement taped by President Obama and broadcast last year.
Officials also have posted messages to Facebook pages of the Pentagon and individual services, spread the word through 130 veteran and military service organizations, typed reminders on the bottom of military and retiree pay stubs, and placed television, radio, newspapers and blog stories and announcements in areas of the country with sizable troop populations, said Eileen Lainez, a Defense Department spokeswoman.
The payment is $500 for each month or partial month the Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine was forced to stay on active duty and is on top of the regular pay received at the time. Eligible to receive it are troops, veterans and their beneficiaries.
Branded a backdoor draft by critics, the "stop-loss" policy was unpopular and forced troops to unexpectedly put educations, family plans or civilian jobs on hold. Use of the practice from 2001 to 2009 spawned the 2008 movie "Stop-Loss," in which a decorated Iraq vet goes AWOL rather than return to the front lines.
Though the Pentagon has been advertising it for nearly a year and a half, some troops still may not be aware of the offer and others may be procrastinating in submitting claims. Even though military contracts allow for the possibility of "stop-loss," officials also think that suspicion toward the government may be preventing some from claiming their money.
"I know there's been some confusion and skepticism out there," Obama said in his two-and-half minute broadcast message. "Some veterans think this is some sort of gimmick or scam or that it's a way for the government to call you back to service.
"Nothing could be further from the truth," he said. "You worked hard; you earned this money."
"This pay is a novel concept to many," Lainez said, since troops "were not expecting to be paid extra money for services already rendered."
Payments have been averaging $3,800 and have been made to 81,000 people so far, Lainez said.
The Air Force's Eric Sharman, of Alexandria, Va., was happy to get his payment just as he and his wife were expecting a baby.
And one servicemember who got $6,000 wrote on the Pentagon's Facebook wall: "Nice surprise!"