Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Our troops deserve reliable pay


National Guard troops mobilized to combat zones such as Afghanistan and Iraq should be able to count on a prompt, accurate paycheck to support their families. One year after the start of the war in Iraq, our troops on the front line should not be worrying about whether their families back home are having trouble meeting the monthly bills because of payroll foul-ups.

But for many mobilized guard members, their pay is an added anxiety. A General Accounting Office survey found most Army National Guard troops experienced pay problems. Soldiers and their families had to spend frustrating amounts of time trying to straighten out the messes. Pentagon officials at a congressional hearing in January admitted the separate payroll system for guard members was never designed for the current mobilizations. Northrop Grumman last year was awarded a contract to develop a single pay system for all troops, but that daunting reform isn't expected to be fully rolled out until 2007.

About 100,000 Army National Guard members are on active duty, and nearly 140,000 have seen combat since 9-11. The Department of Defense's total force strategy recognizes there aren't enough active-duty forces to meet all possible war demands, so reserve units need to be blended in with active-duty troops. That means more overseas call-ups for reserves and longer tours of duty away from families. For families of the self-employed, the financial sacrifices may be acute.

Congress should keep pressing the Department of Defense to devote enough resources to make sure its new total force military gets paid on time and correctly. Since the military can change its personnel practices about as instantly as an aircraft carrier can change direction, stateside employers of called-up guard troops, creditors and others back home can explore other ways to ease financial hardships on soldiers' families.

GAO found 34 Colorado Special Forces soldiers were mistakenly assessed debts averaging $48,000 each. It took a long time to sort that one out. Injured Special Forces soldiers from Virginia were denied active-duty pay and medical benefits when their orders had not been processed. A West Virginia sergeant had to take a four-day trip from Uzbekistan to Kuwait and brave enemy fire to deliver his unit's pay data so an Army finance office could process the paychecks. Some pay was delayed months or grossly underpaid, but in other cases, the Army overpaid.

GAO advised the Pentagon to upgrade training for payroll units and convert as much as possible from manual entry by clerks to computerized systems. GAO suggested extra accounting controls to reconcile payroll errors promptly, but only an all-new "integrated" pay system is likely to bring a lasting fix.

Maddening payroll problems are no way to keep all-volunteer troops in the U.S. armed forces. We can never adequately pay soldiers for risking their lives in combat. But Congress should at least speed the day that soldiers, as much as members of Congress, can take a regular, reliable paycheck for granted.

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