Shawn Aiken is an American veteran of two tours of combat duty in Iraq and Afghanistan but he met perhaps his most formidable foe back home—the Defense Department’s finance and accounting department. During treatment for a brain injury, PTSD, and other afflictions, the Army stopped paying Aiken. His salary for December 2011 came in at $117.99. He struggled to pay his medical bills, put food on the table for his family, buy gifts for his young children for Christmas. The Defense Department treated him like a bad soldier and couldn’t explain why he wasn’t being paid.
“Aiken’s case is hardly isolated,” a detailed Reuters investigation reads. “Pay errors in the military are widespread.” The reason is antiquated computer programs and databases that can’t communicate with one another (one uses an obsolete, half-century-old language). “The Pentagon is literally unable to account for itself … The Government Accountability Office said DFAS and the Army have no way to ensure correct pay for soldiers and no way to track errors.”
It’s more than disrespectful and hurtful to the families of soldiers who go into combat to defend the United States and the American people. “It is an incredibly inefficient, wasteful way of doing business,” says the retired commander of the US Central Command.
That the United States treats its veterans this way is difficult to accept. Here is a country with extremely sophisticated technology used to kill enemies and keep the country safe and yet the programs used to pay the people who put themselves in harm’s way so the rest of us can sleep easy at night are so ancient that they frequently screw up basic tasks. On top of all the other problems that come with returning home from combat, billing programs can mistakenly bury soldiers in debt. Veterans seeking answers to billing questions are often stymied by an impenetrable bureaucracy where staff are forced to submit written requests for information to other departments that sometimes take weeks to be resolved. Efforts to correct these problems have led nowhere and cost taxpayers billions of dollars.
We’ve been impressed with this and other in-depth Reuters investigations. So far it appears to be a successful strategy to make long-form journalism relevant and have an impact. This particular essay is important; the report describes how the Defense Department only repaid Aiken only after the journalists submitted repeated requests for information, and it seems that investigations like this are causing lawmakers to seek changes. And there’s more to come:
In this series, Reuters will delve into how an organization that fields the most sophisticated technology in the world to fight wars and spy on enemies has come to rely on an accounting system of antiquated, error-prone computers; how these thousands of duplicative and inefficient systems cost billions of dollars to staff and maintain; how efforts to replace these systems with better ones have ended in costly failures; and how it all adds up to billions of taxpayer dollars a year in losses to mismanagement, theft and fraud.
We look forward to the rest of the series and other long Reuters reports. In the meantime, try to wrap your head around the aggravating mystery of how our government often fails to take care of its veterans.
[Image of World War II Veteran on Memorial Day 2013 at the San Francisco National Cemetery courtesy Wikimedia]