Part One — How the Pentagon’s payroll quagmire traps America’s soldiers:
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. [Continue reading…]
Part Two — Behind the Pentagon’s doctored ledgers, a running tally of epic waste:
Linda Woodford spent the last 15 years of her career inserting phony numbers in the U.S. Department of Defense’s accounts.
Every month until she retired in 2011, she says, the day came when the Navy would start dumping numbers on the Cleveland, Ohio, office of the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, the Pentagon’s main accounting agency. Using the data they received, Woodford and her fellow DFAS accountants there set about preparing monthly reports to square the Navy’s books with the U.S. Treasury’s – a balancing-the-checkbook maneuver required of all the military services and other Pentagon agencies.
And every month, they encountered the same problem. Numbers were missing. Numbers were clearly wrong. Numbers came with no explanation of how the money had been spent or which congressional appropriation it came from. “A lot of times there were issues of numbers being inaccurate,” Woodford says. “We didn’t have the detail … for a lot of it.”
The data flooded in just two days before deadline. As the clock ticked down, Woodford says, staff were able to resolve a lot of the false entries through hurried calls and emails to Navy personnel, but many mystery numbers remained. For those, Woodford and her colleagues were told by superiors to take “unsubstantiated change actions” – in other words, enter false numbers, commonly called “plugs,” to make the Navy’s totals match the Treasury’s.
Jeff Yokel, who spent 17 years in senior positions in DFAS’s Cleveland office before retiring in 2009, says supervisors were required to approve every “plug” – thousands a month. “If the amounts didn’t balance, Treasury would hit it back to you,” he says.
After the monthly reports were sent to Treasury, the accountants continued to seek accurate information to correct the entries. In some instances, they succeeded. In others, they didn’t, and the unresolved numbers stood on the books.
At the DFAS offices that handle accounting for the Army, Navy, Air Force and other defense agencies, fudging the accounts with false entries is standard operating procedure, Reuters has found. And plugging isn’t confined to DFAS (pronounced DEE-fass). Former military service officials say record-keeping at the operational level throughout the services is rife with made-up numbers to cover lost or missing information. [Continue reading…]