WASHINGTON — Thousands of Army National Guardsmen called to duty in Afghanistan and Iraq since Sept. 11, 2001, have been forced to fight the military’s bureaucracy for special pay and benefits guaranteed as part of their service, a Congressional watchdog agency has concluded.
The General Accounting Office said some soldiers routinely are underpaid, others overpaid and others issued checks months behind schedule.
Such problems are pervasive among activated Guard units and have been apparent for years. They also will take years to solve, the agency’s lead investigator told reporters. More than 150,000 guardsmen and reservists currently are on active duty.
“It’s outrageous,” said Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn., one of two congressmen who released the GAO’s study Thursday. He said the pay problems have had “a devastating emotional and financial impact” on thousands of guardsmen’s families.
The GAO’s 11-month payroll inquiry focused on Guard units from six states, including Virginia. Of the 481 soldiers in those units, 450 or 94 percent had a mistake in at least one paycheck during that period, said lead investigator Gregory D. Kutz. Many had multiple problems in the same check, he said.
The path flew to fix one unit's pay:
1. Flew from Bagram Air Force Base, Afghanistan, to Dushanbe, Tajikistan.
2. Flew to Camp Snoopy, Qatar. Were unable to make pay changes from the camp. Spent weekend due to limited flights.
3. Flew to Shabaz Air Force Base in Pakistan.
4. Flew to Kuwait International Airport.
5. Traveled 45 minutes to Camp Doha, Kuwait. Input information for each unit member at the camp’s financial office.
6. Flew to Seeb Air Force Base, Oman.
7. Flew to Kandahar Air Force Base, Afghanistan.
8. Returned to Bagram Air Force Base, Afghanistan.
The Virginia unit in the GAO study, B Company, 3rd Battalion, 20th Special Forces is based at Fort A.P. Hill near Fredericksburg.
Activated in January 2002, the 65-man unit spent six months in Afghanistan before returning to the United States in October. All but one of its soldiers experienced some problem with their pay during the activation, said Sgt. 1st Class Curtis Dunn, an engineer who has served as the unit’s finance clerk.
“Picture a soldier ... in the middle of nowhere, Afghanistan,” Dunn said. “The heat is oppressive, and they’ve been out on patrol all day, sucking down dust.” The weary trooper finally gets a few minutes with the unit’s satellite phone for the weekly call home.
“He’d like to spend that precious time reassuring his family, telling his wife and children how much he loves and misses them ... Instead he has to utilize the majority of the time discussing finances and trying to determine if he’s been paid correctly” so that the family will be able to cover the mortgage and buy groceries.
The “financial friendly fire” also has driven at least some soldiers out of the Guard, and cost taxpayers millions of dollars, Shays and Virginia Rep. Tom Davis, R-11th District, charged.
Disclosure of the payroll problems comes following complaints by reservists and members of Congress that some reserve call-ups have been badly managed and some units undertrained and equipped with old, out-of-date aircraft and weapons.
Members of a Peninsula-based reserve unit complained in August that their CH-47D Chinook helicopters were not given as advanced of a defensive system as is provided to active duty units.
There were similar questions, now under investigation by the Pentagon, about equipment aboard an Illinois National Guard Chinook downed Nov. 2 in Iraq. Sixteen soldiers died in that attack.
Kutz said the payroll inquiry found some units did not have enough trained payroll clerks to handle the mounds of paperwork that go with separation allowances, hazardous duty pay and other benefits due the troops.
In other cases, the people doing the processing “didn’t know what they were doing,” he said.
Kutz and the lawmakers said many of the problems grow out of differences between the payroll system the Pentagon maintains for active duty troops and systems at the state level used to pay to pay guardsmen.
Guard forces are federalized when called for deployment.
“Few if any in the Defense Department understand the complex and cumbersome process,” which involves about 100 organizations and thousands of people, Kutz said.
Some guardsmen were “bounced back and forth” between active and Guard payroll officials as they attempted to fix problems with their paychecks, “with the active Army and the Army Guard pointing fingers at each other and at the end of the day neither one addressing the issues,” he added.
The Pentagon acknowledged pervasive problems in its accounting and payroll systems for guardsmen, accepting each of 24 recommendations in the GAO report.
While crediting Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld with acknowledging payroll problems and attempting to solve them, Shays and Davis said they’re under no illusions that the guardsmen’s woes are over.
The Pentagon “knows we’re not going to shut them down,” Shays said, and so officials there have less incentive to address financial shortcomings than do their counterparts at smaller, less politically-potent agencies.
GAO and other studies suggest that the military bureaucracy is carrying $1 trillion or more on its books in transactions that can’t be verified, he noted.
Unfamiliar with what he called “the ins and outs of the pay and personnel world,” Dunn — who had been pressed into duty as his unit’s finance clerk — had to research the special pays and allowances due his comrades and develop his own system to assure they were properly paid.
At one point, while the unit was pursuing Taliban and Al Qaida fighters in northern Afghanistan, the payroll problems grew so acute that Dunn and another soldier were sent to Qatar to seek help at an Army Finance Office.
Unable to get help there, they were dispatched to Kuwait, where finance officers were said to be more knowledgeable about entering the proper information into the payroll system.
The expedition ended up taking a week and involved stops in Pakistan and Oman as the two soldiers hitched rides on military shuttles to rejoin their unit.
Dunn said guardsmen are accustomed to being paid for their routine drill weekends several weeks after the fact. “That’s not usually an issue, because generally the drill pay that we receive is not a primary source of income.”
But once they’re mobilized, the guardsmen’s military checks become their main or only income so late pay becomes a big problem, Dunn said.
“This is not a situation in which our fighting soldiers should be placed,” Dunn said.
© 2003 HamptonRoads.com/PilotOnline.com