Part 1: Hobbled by old, incompatible computer systems, the Defense Department’s payroll bureaucracy inflicts punishing errors on America’s warriors
EL PASO, Texas - As Christmas 2011 approached, U.S. Army medic Shawn Aiken was once again locked in desperate battle with a formidable foe. Not insurgents in Iraq, or Taliban fighters in Afghanistan - enemies he had already encountered with distinguished bravery.
This time, he was up against the U.S. Defense Department.
Aiken, then 30 years old, was in his second month of physical and psychological reconstruction at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, after two tours of combat duty had left him shattered. His war-related afflictions included traumatic brain injury, severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), abnormal eye movements due to nerve damage, chronic pain, and a hip injury.
But the problem that loomed largest that holiday season was different. Aiken had no money. The Defense Department was withholding big chunks of his pay. It had started that October, when he received $2,337.56, instead of his normal monthly take-home pay of about $3,300. He quickly raised the issue with staff. It only got worse. For all of December, his pay came to $117.99.
All Aiken knew was that the Defense Department was taking back money it claimed he owed. Beyond that, "they couldn't even tell me what the debts were from," he says.
At the time, Aiken was living off base with his fiancee, Monica, and her toddler daughter, while sharing custody of his two children with his ex-wife. As their money dwindled, the couple began hitting church-run food pantries. Aiken took out an Army Emergency Relief Loan to cover expenses of their December move into a new apartment. At Christmas, Operation Santa Claus provided the family with presents - one for each child, per the charity's rules.
Eventually, they began pawning their possessions - jewelry, games, an iPhone, and even the medic bag Aiken used when saving lives in Afghanistan. The couple was desperate from "just not knowing where food's going to come from," he says. "They just hit one button and they take your whole paycheck away. And then you have to fight to get the money back."
Aiken's injuries made that fight more difficult. He limped from office to office to press his case to an unyielding bureaucracy. With short-term and long-term memory loss, he struggled to keep appointments and remember key dates and events. His PTSD symptoms alienated some staff. "He would have an outburst … (and) they would treat him as if he was like a bad soldier," says Monica. "They weren't compassionate."
They were also wrong. The money the military took back from Aiken resulted from accounting and other errors, and it should have been his to keep. Further, even after Aiken complained, the Defense Department didn't return the bulk of the money to Aiken until after Reuters inquired about his case.
The Pentagon agency that identified the overpayments, clawed them back and resisted Aiken's pleas for explanation and redress is the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, or DFAS (pronounced "DEE-fass"). This agency, with headquarters in Indianapolis, Indiana, has roughly 12,000 employees and, after cuts under the federal sequester, a $1.36 billion budget. It is responsible for accurately paying America's 2.7 million active-duty and Reserve soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.
It often fails at that task, a Reuters investigation finds.
A review of individuals' military pay records, government reports and other documents, along with interviews with dozens of current and former soldiers and other military personnel, confirms Aiken's case is hardly isolated. Pay errors in the military are widespread. And as Aiken and many other soldiers have found, once mistakes are detected, getting them corrected - or just explained - can test even the most persistent soldiers (see related story).
"Too often, a soldier who has a problem with his or her pay can wait days, weeks or even months to get things sorted out," Democratic Senator Thomas Carper of Delaware, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, wrote in an email. "This is simply unacceptable."