By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."
No one can say how many troops have pay problems across the military, Kutz said, but the GAO has found that, in certain Army National Guard and Reserve units, more than 90 percent of soldiers have had at least one overpayment or underpayment during deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan. Steps have since been taken to improve the system, but the problem will not be eliminated, Kutz said, until the larger computer system is reengineered.
Typically, troops get a boost in pay while in combat. When they come home, the system can take extra weeks to catch up with the change, and some people are overpaid. For wounded troops -- still adjusting to their injuries and changed futures -- a debt notice can be another bitter discovery.
"It was like I was being abandoned. I was no good to the military anymore," recalled Loria, who served more than five years. "They figured the pay glitch was my fault and I was going to pay for it."
Loria was a combat engineer in Iraq in February 2004 when he rushed out with other soldiers to rescue a comrade wounded by a roadside bomb near Baqubah. After helping load the soldier onto his Humvee, Loria started to drive away. A second bomb exploded.
"My whole body hurt," he said, "and I felt like I was on fire." He noticed that his hand and lower arm seemed to be hanging off to the side.
A week later, Loria awoke in a hospital bed at Walter Reed, his wife watching over him. He had to learn to walk again, and, worse, he had to accept that "I was never going to do something that required two hands." Still, he said, he tried to remember that others died in Iraq and that "so many people in Walter Reed were 10 times worse off than myself."
After he left the hospital, his financial trouble started. First, his wages were garnished. "I was missing car payments and phone bill payments and everything else," he said. Then, when he was leaving the military, shortly before Christmas, his debts were laid out: $2,200 in travel related to follow-up hospital treatment, $2,400 for combat-related pay he should not have collected and several hundred dollars more for military gear that went missing after his injury.
The full force of his debt hit as he was trying to get to his family in New York for the holidays. "I had a quarter-tank of gas, three cats in my vehicle and no money whatsoever," he said.
His outraged wife, Christine Loria, called the local newspaper in Middletown, N.Y., which published an article, and New York lawmakers became involved: Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles E. Schumer and Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey (D). Within a matter of days, the debts were cleared, and Yankees owner George Steinbrenner donated $25,000 to Loria.
Months later, home with his wife and stepson, Loria was stunned to receive a call from a collection agency. He owed $646 for housing: nine days of rent, damaged window blinds, a broken refrigerator tray.
"They call and they call and they call," he said. "They're nasty to me." Sometimes, he said, he feels outraged. "I don't know how much you want from me. I already gave you one arm and a part of a leg."
As Loria battled with bill collectors, Ryan Kelly, 25, took his problems to the GAO. He did this at the suggestion of a friend and fellow volunteer at the Wounded Warrior Project, a nonprofit program in Roanoke for injured troops.
Kelly had been wounded in Iraq in July 2003, when his Humvee was blasted by a roadside bomb. "It blew my leg pretty much clean off," he said.
Like Loria, Kelly spent months at Walter Reed, recovering and learning to walk again without his lower leg and foot. The Army staff sergeant struggled with questions about his future. Because he had been injured as a reservist, he was told, there was no guarantee he could deploy to Iraq again. "I didn't want to stay in the Army if I was just going to be a warm body, filling a slot," he said.
When Kelly left the military last year, he recalled, "it was an intense, emotional time." He thought little of the final two checks totaling $2,700 because he was owed vacation and travel pay, he said. Later, he was bewildered as pay stubs continued to come in the mail, each blank except for a notation of a $2,230 debt.
Frustrated, Kelly called the Disabled Soldier Support System, a unit where a counselor told him the Army had mistakenly paid him for an extra 22 days. But Kelly said he was told it would all work out well because the military owed him for his leave and travel. A few weeks later, he said, "I got a check, and I thought, 'Oh, that's nice.' "
But after he and his wife moved to Arizona, he received a bill for $2,230 -- with the threat of a referral to a collection agency. "I was pretty speechless," he said.
When Kelly called the GAO, he learned that the debt was already listed on his credit history.
"What benefit is the Army getting, aggressively going after disabled service members for $500 or $1,000 or whatever? Why not give injured service members a little leeway?"
That sentiment is common.
Tyson Johnson, 24, of Prichard, Ala., was stunned after being struck by a mortar round in Iraq to find a bill waiting for him when he came home from the hospital. It was for $2,700, the bonus he had been given when he enlisted.
"I definitely felt betrayed, because I went over there and almost lost my life," said Johnson, a corporal when he was injured. His debt was resolved after his story made news. "I really didn't need more stress."
Sgt. Gary Dowd, 28, was caught in an ambush 30 miles north of Tikrit, Iraq, in 2003 and suffered multiple injuries, losing his left hand and forearm.
After 13 months of treatment, he retired from the Army early this year. Shortly afterward, he received a letter at his home in Tampa asking him to repay $600 for a survivor-benefit insurance plan he had opted out of when he signed his deployment papers.
There was no number on the bill to call -- no way to protest. "I was pretty irked that they thought I owed them something," he said. "I feel like I've given them enough."
Although Dowd feels there is no ill intent, he said, "I do wish that once they realized they had an injured service member, they would flag them and say: 'This guy has been in the hospital. He's going through enough already.' "