War Vets Hounded by Pentagon Debt Collectors

June 13th, 2006 - by admin

Straus Military Reform Project / Center for Defense Information – 2006-06-13 23:08:12


More on Wounded Soldier Pay
Straus Military Reform Project / Center for Defense Information

This editorial by Lawrence Korb and Peter Ogden
Originally appeared in the New York Times
on May 29, 2006.

(June 2, 2006) — In the past few years, the US Army has had to rely increasingly on financial incentives to recruit and retain soldiers. But even as the Army’s finance and payroll system administers ever larger sums of money and a growing number of entitlements, it must also track the hundreds of thousands of Army, Army Reserve and Army National Guard personnel who are being moved in and out of Iraq, Afghanistan, South Korea and the Balkans.

The Army’s payroll system, originally developed in the late 1970’s, has never been under so much strain. And just when the Army needs it most, it is failing.

The Government Accountability Office has announced that as of last September, flaws in the Army’s system had resulted in $1.5 million in military debt on account of overpayments to close to 1,300 soldiers who were wounded or killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan; as a result, many of these soldiers and their families have been hounded by government debt collectors.

Simply forgiving this debt is not a long-term solution: unless the Pentagon moves quickly to overhaul the system and reorder its priorities, there will be many more problems in the future.

Breakdowns often occur when a soldier is killed in action or wounded severely enough to be sent off the battlefield. Although the Army’s personnel office is informed that the soldier is dead or has been redeployed, the finance office becomes aware of this only if the proper paperwork is submitted — a step that frequently gets skipped in the rush to notify the soldier’s family, collect and process his equipment, and otherwise expedite his return home.

The finance office, therefore, continues to provide the soldier or his family a salary that includes hostile fire, hardship duty and family separation pay to which he is no longer entitled.

The government is forgiving the overpayment debts owed by the family of dead soldiers. But the accountability office found that nearly 900 soldiers wounded in battle had accrued $1.2 million in debt from overpayments, and hundreds of them have been pursued by the Army.

To fix the payroll problem, the Army needs to address a larger issue. It must develop ways for the active duty Army, Army National Guard and Army Reserve to function together, as something like a total Army.

To this end, the Army must first put into place new computer software that both integrates the personnel and payroll systems and processes the new entitlements soldiers are due.

In addition, the Army must update its payroll system, and the training of those who manage it, to reflect the fact that today’s combat operations rely on the frequent and lengthy deployment of the National Guard and the Army Reserve, not just active duty soldiers. At present, the pay systems of the different components of the Army are entirely separate and mutually inaccessible.

This is particularly problematic when members of the Guard and Reserve are assigned or attached to a deployed active Army unit, as has become standard in Iraq. Whose responsibility is it to keep the guardsmen and reservists’ information up to date? Uncertainty over this process, and the slow flow of information from the field to the soldier’s home base, are at the source of numerous payroll errors.

Neither military transformation nor increasingly lucrative enlistment and re-enrollment packages will save our Army if the payroll system breaks down. But the cost of repairing the payroll system will exceed the cancellation of the $1.5 million debt.

The Army will need to develop and install new software; recruit more specialists to run the system; provide those specialists with new career enhancement opportunities; and train them to maintain the Reserve and Guard databases. These are not minor investments, but without them, the Army’s other, more glamorous goals cannot be achieved.

• To see the November 2005 follow-up by the Straus Military Reform Project, which was a response to a study written by an Army captain and reported to his superiors, who did little to nothing about it until it became a national scandal,
Click Here.

CDI Senior Advisor Lawrence J. Korb, who was an assistant secretary of defense from 1981 to 1985, and Peter Ogden, work on national security issues at the Center for American Progress.

Posted in accordance with Title 17, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.