Pentagon Payroll Errors Trap and Rob Soldiers

When U.S. Army medic Shawn Aiken joined the military, the one enemy he never expected to face was the U.S. Defense Department. He’s not a home-grown terrorist. In fact, Aiken is one of this country’s honorable wounded warriors — a man who served two tours of duty and was wounded in a horrific ambush.

And he’s not alone in this new battleground.

That’s the story revealed in a special investigation from Reuters, which uncovered that America’s soldiers –  both active-duty personnel and discharged – are falling prey to widespread pay errors by the Pentagon. In the case of Aiken and multiple other examples, some soldiers are erroneously being shortchanged on pay, while others are mistakenly overpaid and then see their earnings drastically cut as the government decides to recoup the money without consulting the person involved. Some men and women are even forced to pay money that was rightfully theirs.

The report reviews numerous individuals’ military pay records, government reports and other documents, along with interviews from dozens of current and former soldiers and other military personnel. “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,” the article states.

US. Army combat medic Shawn Aiken poses for a portrait as he holds a photo of himself while on patrol in Iraq in El Paso, Texas on May 20, 2013. REUTERS/Ivan Pierre Aguirre
US. Army combat medic Shawn Aiken poses for a portrait as he holds a photo of himself while on patrol in Iraq in El Paso, Texas on May 20, 2013. REUTERS/Ivan Pierre Aguirre

This isn’t a simple hardship hitting now and then, and these pay mistakes can have severe repercussions; in Aiken’s case alone, his pay was cut down to less than $200 a month, then stopped entirely. It should also be noted that soldiers don’t always make a lot of money to begin with. For example, an Army private first class makes a base annual salary of approximately $23,000, and a wounded veteran on disability might make less than that. As the article notes, “Former soldiers have had their civilian wages and their Veterans Administration benefits garnished. They have been pursued by private collection agencies and forced to pay tax penalties. In other cases, too, deserters have continued to be paid for months, and sometimes years, after disappearing.”

The main reason for the problem might seem startling to some, but for those people inside the military it’s no shock at all. The Defense Department uses more than 2,200 computer systems to manage payroll, finances and more. Most of these systems are decades old, long obsolete, and unable to communicate with each other. In fact, the Pentagon agency in charge of this area, the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, still uses “a half-century-old computer language that is largely unable to communicate with the equally outmoded personnel management systems employed by each of the military services.”

This ongoing Reuters series will examine the situation in further detail, but to start this series the news agency created this video on Aiken so that the public could get a feel for those people directly impacted by these mistakes.

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