WASHINGTON – Some National Guard and Reservists mobilized for the War on Terror (search) have waited months, even years, to get reimbursed for their travel and meal expenses, they say, costing thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket costs and forcing many to be delinquent in paying other bills on time.
Now some lawmakers and soldiers are calling this outstanding debt the latest in a long line of inequities and hardships for the nation’s Guard and Reserve soldiers, many of whom have reported problems with housing allowances, health coverage and payments for purchasing battlefield gear.
"The problems that I experienced — and most of the guys I was deployed with — were extensive. It was ridiculous," said Sgt. Jason Hartley, a National Guardsman from New York City who returned from Iraq two months ago. He just received a check for his housing allowance — 12 months after the expense was incurred.
"Most of the problems I encountered were with the travel system," said National Guardsman Patrick Jennings, a military historian who was deployed to both Afghanistan and Iraq and is home now in Newmarket, N.H. "I got a check a few months ago that was two years old."
A new Government Accountability Office (search) report released in March on the "Inefficient, Error-Prone Process Results in Travel Reimbursement Problems for Mobilized Soldiers" found that the Department of Defense pay system was overwhelmed early on due to the massive call-up of the Army National Guard since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
"Guard soldiers in our case study units reported a number of problems they and their families endured due to delayed or unpaid travel reimbursements, including debts on their personal credit cards, trouble paying their monthly bills and inability to make child support payments," said the report, released on March 16.
In one case, according to the GAO, all 107 members of the 115th military police Guard unit in Maryland were denied food expenses, even though they were forced to lodge off-base because the military had nowhere to house them. Some paid for their meals out-of-pocket, while others "hitchhiked and rode bicycles" for the free meal at the mess dining hall.
In another case, the 76 members of the 114th military police unit stationed in Mississippi were denied food expenses, incurring about $6,000 each. The money was not reimbursed as of the report’s release.
The GAO also said that many soldiers were not receiving interest on late payments or had received amounts less than what they were authorized to earn.
"Some soldiers who have deployed have fallen behind on paying some of their bills because of travel reimbursement problems, and there have been collection actions against them," said Mike Hettinger, spokesman for the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Management, Finance and Accountability, which held a hearing to correspond with the report's release.
Expenses also pile up when a Guard soldier or reservist is mobilized and has to pay his or her own way to the base, plus stay in hotels or other lodgings when they get there.
"For some people it could be thousands of dollars, depending on where you are going and where you live," said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Operation Truth (search), a veterans organization for those who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan missions. "It could be a significant loss of money. There are countless stories."
Since 2001, 342,000 Guard members and Reservists have been mobilized, and currently, more than 175,000 are mobilized for active duty.
Officials at the Department of Defense Finance and Accounting Service (search) and the Army have been trying to update its antiquated, paper-driven system for reconciling Guard and Reserve reimbursements and make it easier for soldiers to file claims accurately, officials told the House panel.
"Ongoing process improvements and training programs, coupled with new initiatives like electronic billing and payment of travel card invoices, and the integrated tracking of problems — across the entire enterprise — are key to improving travel reimbursements," said John Argodale, deputy assistant secretary of the Army for financial operations.
Officials say they are challenged to bring online a whole system that includes processing new personnel, fixing problems with mobilization orders to identify which guards need reimbursement, reducing the number of rejected claims, advancing expenses and handing out subsidized travel cards.
The Defense Travel System (search) is pegged as the Defense Department’s "ultimate solution for travel pay reimbursement," said Patrick Shine, director of military and civilian pay services at DFAS, who also testified before the subcommittee. But DTS, which would be a totally Web-based program for both the soldiers and administrators, won’t be fully operational until sometime in fiscal year 2006, he said.
Officials say the numbers of claims overwhelmed the existing system, designed to pay expenses for Reserve soldiers on monthly drills and two-week summer camps. By the end of 2004's fiscal year last Sept. 30, the DoD had processed more than 2.2 million travel reimbursement claims. In that time, 380,000 came from mobilized Guard and Reserve soldiers.
"It’s when you mobilize 150,000 soldiers at one point, the system gets overloaded," said Hettinger, "and [soldiers] are clearly impacted both when they are in the country and when they are deployed in the theater."
He said the Government Reform committees responsible for oversight have been working for more than a year to help resolve these and other Guard and Reserve issues. Other issues include preventing creditors from harassing active duty soldiers and their families, particularly those waiting for reimbursements.
"We need to find a way where their credit is not harmed and they aren’t harassed," he said.
Argodale said that DFAS has put $17 million into the Guard and Reserve travel reimbursement system, and in the last 18 months new claims have been processed within eight days. Though this won’t solve all of the problems, he said, it is a good start.
But New York City Guardsman Hartley said that after spending a year in an infantry battalion north of Baghdad, he would like to be paid for his effort.
"They told us right when we went on active duty that we were to get per diem for every single day we were away," he said. Many in his battalion "are still waiting for that check. It’s embarrassing, you’d think our military would be on top of things like this."