(Reuters) - Four months after 25-year Air Force veteran George Koffler retired, the Defense Department demanded that he give back $4,034.67 in pay it said he hadn't deserved.
In the more than two years since, the former master sergeant has vainly sought an answer to a simple question: Why?
Even as Koffler repeatedly asked the Defense Finance and Accounting Services, or DFAS, for an explanation, the Pentagon's payroll agency arranged to garnish his pay from his new civilian job and report the alleged debt to credit agencies. The unpaid balance was eventually turned over to a private collection agency.
Koffler is among the many retired or discharged military personnel who Reuters found are suddenly dunned by DFAS for money they never owed, or for overpayments they erroneously, and unknowingly, received. And as his case illustrates, many of them struggle to get an explanation for the claimed debt.
Koffler's ordeal began in February 2011, when he opened his mail to find the DFAS debt notice. "It was kind of like a slap in the face," he says.
The notice said the debt was for most of the "special duty assignment pay" he had earned for his last five years as an Air Force first sergeant. But there was no reason given why he, in particular, didn't deserve that pay.
Koffler, who served in Bosnia, the first Persian Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, as well as on humanitarian missions, had risen over the years to become a master sergeant, one of the top ranks of Air Force enlisted personnel. In 2005, he graduated from the Air Force's First Sergeant Academy.
In the Air Force, first sergeant is a specialized job open to high-ranking sergeants. Under federal law, Air Force first sergeants, during the period Koffler served, were to receive an additional $150 a month in "special duty assignment pay" to cover the job's extra workload. The duties include serving as top adviser to a commander and overseeing mission readiness and the health and well-being of airmen.
Koffler could think of nothing that would disqualify him for his first-sergeant's pay. He first called the DFAS office in St. Louis, Missouri, to ask for an explanation. The agency mailed him a multipage packet filled with accounting codes he couldn't decipher.
He next phoned pay officials at Randolph Air Force Base, outside San Antonio, Texas, and the closest base to his home in Spring, Texas. Personnel there told him to call DFAS headquarters in Indianapolis, where staff told him to call the DFAS office in St. Louis.
A frustrated Koffler then wrote a detailed letter to DFAS to dispute the debt. Koffler says he never received any response.
The 48-year-old Koffler works at a high school as an Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps instructor. For seven months, DFAS garnished his pay, taking more than $300 every two weeks, or about 15 per cent of his salary.
When Koffler and his wife were arranging to buy living-room furniture in early 2011, the salesman withdrew an offer of $1,500 in financing. The DFAS debt, it turned out, had sharply lowered Koffler's credit rating.
"You kind of feel like they left you out to dry," Koffler says.
DFAS declined to make anyone available to discuss Koffler's case, and it did not respond to questions about whether it investigated Koffler's complaints.
During his years as a first sergeant, Koffler received more than $8,000 in special-duty pay - roughly double the amount it billed him. In a written response to questions, DFAS said that with the aim of recouping the full amount from Koffler, it had already collected $4,130 through withholdings from his last two paychecks.
Koffler says he recalls no such deductions, and a Reuters examination of his monthly pay statements turned up none for the alleged debt before his retirement.
In response to a Privacy Act waiver Koffler signed, DFAS turned over documents stating that the Air Force had asked DFAS to collect the money because "the servicemember was not eligible for the special duty pay." But the documents don't say why he was deemed ineligible.
DFAS referred Reuters to the Air Force's Personnel Center, where spokesman Michael Dickerson said DFAS should have the answer. Dickerson confirmed that Koffler was a first sergeant for the five years before he retired. He said the personnel center has no responsibility for special-duty pay. He suggested that Reuters contact units Koffler served in.
Two commanders Koffler served under during his last five years in the Air Force said he had earned his special-duty pay as a first sergeant. One of them, Lieutenant Colonel William Salinger, said Koffler's performance was "absolutely spectacular."
Reuters then went to Air Force Secretary Michael Donley. His spokeswoman, Ann Stefanek, said that she checked Koffler's pay records and that "there's a possibility there is an error." She declined to provide details. She said Donley's office would not look into whether the Air Force and DFAS had erred in claiming the money back.
Stefanek declined to say whether the Air Force has any records explaining the debt, or why Donley's office would not investigate. She suggested that Koffler begin a new appeals process if he wants to contest the debt. Beyond that, she said in an email, "I don't have any additional information to provide at this time."
Edited by John Blanton