For Injured U.S. Troops, 'Financial Friendly Fire'
Friday, October 14, 2005
His hand had been blown off in Iraq, his body pierced by shrapnel. He could not walk. Robert Loria was flown home for a long recovery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he tried to bear up against intense physical pain and reimagine his life's possibilities.
The last thing on his mind, he said, was whether the Army had correctly adjusted his pay rate -- downgrading it because he was out of the war zone -- or whether his combat gear had been accounted for properly: his Kevlar helmet, his suspenders, his rucksack.
But nine months after Loria was wounded, the Army garnished his wages and then, as he prepared to leave the service, hit him with a $6,200 debt. That was just before last Christmas, and several lawmakers scrambled to help. This spring, a collection agency started calling. He owed another $646 for military housing.
"I was shocked," recalled Loria, now 28 and medically retired from the Army. "After everything that went on, they still had the nerve to ask me for money."
Although Loria's problems may be striking on their own, the Army has recently identified 331 other soldiers who have been hit with military debt after being wounded at war. The new analysis comes as the United States has more wounded troops than at any time since the Vietnam War, with thousands suffering serious injury in Iraq or Afghanistan.
"This is a financial friendly fire," charged Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), chairman of the House Committee on Government Reform, which has been looking into the issue. "It's awful." Davis called the failure systemic and said military "pay problems have been an embarrassment all the way through" the war.
Army officials said they are in the process of forgiving debts for 99 of the 331 wounded soldiers, all now out of the military. The other cases have not been resolved, said G. Eric Reid, director of the U.S. Army Finance Command. Complex laws and regulations govern the cancellation of debts once soldiers leave the service, he said.
Part of the problem is that the government's computerized pay system is designed to "maximize debt collection" and has operated without a way to keep bills from going to the wounded, Reid said. In the past seven months, a database of injured troops has been created to help prevent that. Now, he said, the goal is to make "a conscious decision . . . on the validity of that debt" in every case.
Early this year, the Army reported that, in looking at a two-month period, it had identified 129 wounded soldiers -- still active in the military -- who had debts. Those were resolved. But the Army cannot pinpoint the full number of wounded active-duty troops with debts.
The House Government Reform Committee has for several years been looking at pay problems among service members. Last spring, the committee asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate debt among the war's wounded and whether troops were being reported to collection and credit agencies. The findings are due early next year.
Although efforts are being made to correct such problems, Rep. Todd R. Platts (R-Pa.) said that for some troops, "we've so mismanaged their pay that . . . we've sent debt notices while they're still in combat, in harm's way." Hounding wounded troops is unfathomable, he said. "For even a single soldier, this is unacceptable," he said.
At the root of the problem is an outdated Defense Department computer system, which does not automatically link pay and personnel records. This creates numerous pay errors -- and overpayments become debts, said Gregory D. Kutz, the GAO's managing director for forensic audits and special investigations. "They've been trying to modernize it since the mid-1990s," he said. "They have been unsuccessful."