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Saturday, October 15, 2005

Financial Friendly Fire 
The Washington Post has a story about attempts to keep wounded troops from getting hit with unjust debt for lost equipment, etc.

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.

[snip]

"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.


Commanders, use those reports of survey!

I wrote about some tangentally related issues here, back in 2003.

Alert commanders and first sergeants can take a lot of the sting out of the debt repayment issue, if a soldier is GENUINELY overpaid, by saying "look, eventually they're going to start taking your pay out. You're going to get everything you were supposed to get. But don't spend the money you WEREN'T supposed to get!"

But when soldiers are wounded, they usually leave their own commanders and NCOs and are attached to medical holding units who don't know them as well.

Some debts genuinely should be recouped. We owe it to the taxpayer. But commanders should have some leeway on forgiving some administrative debt based on the circumstances of the individual soldier. The battalion commander level makes sense to me.

Equipment lost in combat in the course of an action in which the soldier is wounded can and should be written off, in SOME cases. It IS the responsibility of the soldier's squad leader and platoon sergeant to recover weapons and other sensitive items when he's being prepped for a medical evac. He needs to keep his helmet and flak jacket on in most cases, and so these expensive items leave the control of the company commander. If they are surrendered at some point, or become lost, neither the soldier nor the company commander should be held liable. These are legitimate combat losses.

It's not entirely clear to me that these losses are a significant fraction of the debt in question, though. It seems to me to be largely recoups of genuine overpayments.

It's a pain in the ass, but I don't see any cause to get our panties all bunched up over this. The Army seems to be taking steps to get ahead of the curve, albeit belatedly.

Payroll is one of those things that is easy to yap about, but very tough to do. And payroll is unique in that some very major issues are resolved by keystrokes by very junior soldiers. It's not unusual for me or my admin NCO to call pay branch to try to resolve a soldier's pay issue, and find that the entire company's payroll is handled by a private first class.

It doesn't sound like a great thing, but what ELSE is a finance unit gonna do with a pfc? The key is good communication, and some NCOs and officers on both sides of the transaction who look out for the soldier and the Army and the taxpayer together, and who can make balanced decisions.

Splash, out

Jason

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