Military Update: Reserve pay problems eased, official says
Systemic pay problems that added to the hassle of mobilization for tens of thousand of Army Reserve and National Guard members since 9/11 have largely been corrected and should not hit the next rotation of reserve forces into Iraq and Afghanistan, says a senior defense pay official.
Patrick T. Shine, director of military and civilian pay services for the Defense Finance and Accounting Service in Indianapolis, says the Army and DFAS have worked to end staffing shortages and processing errors that congressional auditors found to be widespread and harmful to morale.
The Government Accountability Office, in separate reports in November and July, found that more than 90 percent of soldiers in activated Army Guard and Reserve units they studied had experienced significant pay problems, mostly overpayments but also underpayments and delays.
GAO said the errors “often had a profound adverse impact on individual soldiers and their families” and were not easy to correct, hanging over some reservists for more than a year.
Many soldiers said they had spent a considerable amount of their time while deployed, in remote and hostile environments, seeking help to understand their pay and trying to correct errors. Very few received combat-zone tax exemptions on time.
Shine, in a phone interview, said GAO correctly categorized three types of pay problems, involving staffing, processes and an obsolete pay system. The first two have been addressed, he said. The third, replacing what Shine described as “a 1969-vintage COBAL software program” will take longer, until next March, to install even a temporary fix.
But Shine said real improvements in finance administration and pay processes — within units, at mobilization and demobilization sites, and at DFAS — combined with other safeguards to ensure accuracy, should make the delay in overall pay system reform invisible to deploying forces.
He wants troops to know, he said, “that at the home station, at the mobilization site and when they’re in-country, they are going to find trained finance people all along the way,” Shine said.
GAO said reserve pay processes and controls for activated units were “inherently flawed.” It criticized a lack of accountability over soldiers and their pay at almost every turn during mobilization. Sloppy procedures in documenting whether soldiers were still overseas resulted in numerous overpayments, particularly of hardship duty pay, GAO said.
The current Defense Joint Military Pay System (DJMS) actually is two systems, one for active-duty members and one for reserves. The reserve system, Shine said, “was designed just to pay people for weekend drills once a month and two weeks active-duty-for-training once a year.” It can be used to pay activated forces, Shine said, but “it requires more manual intervention” which raises the risk of errors.
Errors blossomed during early troop rotations into Afghanistan and Iraq in part because few reserve units arrived with finance teams trained to work their cumbersome pay system. Pay problems weren’t prevalent for reserve forces sent to Bosnia and Kosovo because the Army used only two mobilization sites, both appropriately staffed. For Iraq, it needed 26 sites and didn’t have enough reserve pay experts to support them all.
The long-term solution is the Defense Integrated Military Human Resource System, which will combine into a single network all military pay and personnel systems, active and reserve. With that system still years away, DFAS and the services came up with an interim replacement for DJMS, enough to move to a combined active and reserve pay system. Called the Forward Compatible Payroll System, it will be implemented in phases, starting with Army Reserve components next spring.
The third force rotation for Iraq will occur this fall, too soon to benefit from a new payroll system. But Shine said mobilized units should see few pay problems because of more and better trained finance teams and greater care in verifying pay accuracy at every stage of mobilization.
DFAS also recently automated hazardous duty pay entries for activated personnel. This change alone will lower by 85 percent the number of manual pay transactions needed, saving the Army “hundreds of thousands inputs,” Shine said.
Finally, rigid processes are in place to track Reserve and Guard members as they move in and out of combat zones, which trigger sharp changes in pay, a source of many earlier pay errors. DFAS is set to verify such pay changes, and will follow up with automated checks of payroll data against travel manifests collected by deployed theater finance offices.
Since last November, when GAO issued its first report on widespread pay problems in the Army National Guard, DFAS worked with the Navy, Air Force and Marines to verify the accuracy of pay for activated personnel. Some problems were uncovered but not near the scale of Army difficulties.
Shine advises all servicemembers to review leave and earnings statements routinely. If they find an irregularity, they should seek clarification through the chain of command.
If a pay problem persists, Army Reserve and National Guard members have a new option, mandated by Congress in the wake of the GAO reports. They or family members with powers of attorney can contact a pay ombudsman. The hot line for Army National Guard units is (877) 276-4729. Army reservists with persistent pay problems can call (608) 388-6466 or DSN 280-6466.
“I feel confident,” said Shine, “that soldiers in OIF-3 [Operation Iraqi Freedom Three] will deploy under a completely different set of financial support circumstances than their predecessors did in OIF-1 and 2.”
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