Pay Problems Plague Returning Soldiers
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Many wounded soldiers are now fighting another battle at home. They're dealing with pay problems created by the military. In many cases, the Army is telling wounded soldiers they owe money and is turning over the bills to collection agencies. The pay problems add more stress to recovering soldiers and their families. As Eric Niiler reports, the problem has continued for years despite congressional hearings, critical audits and complaints by veterans groups.
ERIC NIILER reporting:
Eugene Robinson is a powerful, athletic man, a natural-born leader who was hoping to make the Army his career. On patrol in Iraq one day last year, a roadside bomb tore through his Humvee. A piece of shrapnel severed his lower spine. He was quickly medevaced to Germany, then to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington. Robinson says getting paralyzed from the waist down was bad enough, but getting a big pay cut was almost worse.
Mr. EUGENE ROBINSON: The next month after I got injured, you know, they still paid me what I was supposed to be getting from downrange, so I expected that. But the following month they took it back.
NIILER: Robinson says the Army cut his hazard duty, or downrange, pay. Army rules say he is supposed to keep it three months after an injury. Then officials took away his cost-of-living allowance. They said he was hospitalized in the US and didn't need the extra money for living at a base in Germany. But his wife and four boys were still there, counting on that money.
Mr. ROBINSON: They stopped giving us COLA because they said I was in the States. OK, but I'm in the hospital. You know, my wife is the one who's still back in Germany with my boys. I'm here in the hospital.
NIILER: Through various mix-ups, Army officials billed Robinson for more than $2,000 and began docking his pay. For two months, his pay stub read zero. As he recovered at Walter Reed, Robinson's wife got no help from military officials in Germany.
Mr. ROBINSON: They basically told her, `Well, we don't know what we can do. No pay due. There's nothing we can do for you.'
NIILER: Robinson's fight with Army bureaucrats did not end until he retired in January of 2005. But similar stories continue to be played out across the country. Michael Hearst is a former Army captain and finance officer for the 1st Armored Division. That's Robinson's unit, which is based in Germany. Hearst recently completed an internal audit of wounded soldiers' pay problems.
Captain MICHAEL HEARST (US Army, Retired; Finance Officer, 1st Armored Division): We found that out of 123 cases where soldiers were wounded or injured and then evacuated from theater and went to the hospital, 82 percent of those soldiers had significant pay problems.
NIILER: For those soldiers, the Army created an artificial debt of $77,000 and shorted them by another $24,000. Hearst said the Army's pay system is so complicated that even the specialists in charge of payroll didn't understand all the rules.
Capt. HEARST: The big problem is there was no--nothing to govern all this. There was no special program in place that said, `Hey, you know, here's how we're going to handle these wounded soldiers. Here's the rules for everybody.' I mean, we searched a long time trying to find a document or some kind of program or oversight authority that provided that, and we found that that simply didn't exist.
NIILER: Hearst found the Army declared one soldier AWOL, absent without leave, who was actually recovering from severe injuries at a hospital in Chicago. He got no pay for three months. At Walter Reed, one soldier was told to keep track of the pay problems of others in his division. Some soldiers had minor debts turned over to collection agencies.
The pay problems that Hearst uncovered are just the latest in a long battle between wounded soldiers and the Pentagon. Gregory Kutz is director of special investigations for the Government Accountability Office; that's the investigative arm of Congress. He says wounded soldiers first started complaining during the first Gulf War.
Mr. GREGORY KUTZ (Government Accountability Office): The Department of Defense and the Army have been trying to put in modernized systems since the mid-1990s, and we're in 2005 and they have yet to implement a solution.
NIILER: Unlike most private companies, Kutz says the Pentagon uses separate personnel and payroll systems. Neither are automated. That means that someone has to manually enter all the factors that determine each soldier's pay rate, like base location and military duties. Since Kutz testified about these problems before Congress in February, the Pentagon has added some case workers, but the big problems remain.
Mr. KUTZ: So what they've done so far, I would say, is more of a Band-Aid approach rather than a re-engineering. And they are working on the re-engineering now.
NIILER: Kutz has completed two critical reports on soldier pay problems since the beginning of the war in Iraq in 2003. He says the Pentagon won't have their new integrated system running until 2007. Eric Reid is director of the Army's Finance Command in Indianapolis. He says 330 wounded soldiers have incurred debts since leaving the Army. Despite the problems, Reid says the Army recently added a new tracking system and more finance personnel at hospitals like Walter Reed.
Mr. ERIC REID (Director, Army Finance Command): We're taking care of soldiers, I think, probably better than you've seen in some cases in the past. And we will continue to aggressively pursue that because as long as there's one soldier who's got a problem--particularly a wounded soldier, but any soldier--then it's still of concern to the Army.
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NIILER: At his parents' home in northern Virginia, Eugene Robinson says he feels lucky. He had the support of his family. But others he met in the hospital did not.
Mr. ROBINSON: And I've seen people in the hospital, their health just decreases because upon--on top of their being injured, the stress and not knowing how their family's going to eat affects you.
NIILER: Robinson says he's decided not to remain bitter. He's still doing rehab and is proud of the Purple Heart he earned in Iraq. For NPR News, I'm Eric Niiler.
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