WASHINGTON – Legislators expressed their dismay Wednesday at the unresolved pay woes of Army National Guard members and the potential problems in recruitment and retention as a result.
“We can plan to go to war in three to four months,but we can't put these pay problems behind us,” said Rep. Edward L. Schrock,R-Va.,to a panel of U.S. Army and U.S. General Accounting Office officials. The witnesses testified in a hearing of the House Committee on Government Reform.
“This is outrageous,” Schrock said. “We have to make sure that its fixed or we're going to lose them.”
Ernest J. Gregory,acting assistant secretary of the Army for financial management and comptroller,said that it may take up to four years to resolve the long delays and widespread paycheck errors.
“Back in the mid-‘90s we knew we had a problem,” Gregory said. He said the problems stem from DOD's manual,labor-intensive and mistake-prone pay process. In addition,the military separates military payroll systems for active and reserve components,causing confusion during active-reserve transitions.
“Taking care of our soldiers is our ultimate mission. Developing a quality,integrated solution for a world class military pay service has been challenging,” Gregory said.
GAO,the investigative arm of Congress,released a report in November that examined six Special Forces and military police units called to active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. The audit found problems in the pay of 94 percent of the 481 members of those units.
The identified problems include over- and underpayments,late payments and collections against identified overpayments,the report says.
The 19th Special Forces Group,2nd Battalion,is headquartered in Kenova,W.Va.,with additional troops based at Camp Dawson in Preston County. Of the 94 unit members,deployed to Afghanistan for one year in December 2001,86 reported pay problems,the report says.
The report revealed that an unidentified sergeant in the group came under enemy fire during a four-day trip from Uzbekistan to Camp Doha,Kuwait,to clear up his unit's pay problems. His plane was forced to return to base after being fired on.
The audit found pay problems “severely” hampered the Defense Department's “ability to provide active duty pay to these personnel,many of whom were risking their lives in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition,these pay problems have had a profound financial impact on individual soldiers and their families.”
In West Virginia's case,Capt. Robert Monette,personnel officer for the battalion,said in a telephone interview Wednesday that the majority of the problems have been cleared up. He said that because the group was the first called to serve after Sept. 11,2001,it ran into more problems than units deployed later.
“The successive battalions had a lot smoother time,” Monette said. “Ours was painful only because we were the first to go in decades.”
Monette added that most of the problems came from other states,Utah and Colorado,for example. Monette agreed with the GAO's recommendation of a unified pay system for active and reserve components. “The pay systems didn't speak to each other,” he said.
Maj. Kenneth Chavez,of the Colorado Army National Guard,told the committee that 25 of the 62 soldiers in his unit left the guard as a direct result of pay problems. Thirty-four soldiers were erroneously assessed debts averaging $48,000 each during their two-year deployment.
Another 15 soldiers asked for transfers to the inactive National Guard to accept highly paid civilian contract work in Iraq,he said. It will take two years and $250,000 to train each replacement,he said.
“I implore this committee to promote the necessary steps now and in the future to prevent another citizen soldier from ever suffering the hardships that members of my company had to endure,” he said.