Thursday, August 29, 2019

A Breach of Faith: The Navy Must Fix the Way it Pays Mobilizing Reservists

When I arrived in Kabul for my last deployment, one of the first things I noticed was a shockingly high percentage of the USN cadre there was USNR. The months that followed was the first time in two decades on active duty that I started to fully appreciate the unnecessarily Byzantine bureaucracy they had to exist in – almost designed to make people not want to be in the USNR.

Today’s guest post outlines to those outside the USNR lifelines a few of the unnecessary processes our reserve component has to deal with. Many of these exist for one reason only; we allow them to.

Blake, over to you.

The US Navy Reserve is failing its deploying Sailors by sending them forward into harm’s way with administrative burdens that damage financial standing, negatively impact their families at home, and detract from readiness. These problems begin at the outset of reserve mobilization and continue through to the day upon which reservists are demobilized and sent home and, in some cases, beyond. Intervention is required if the Navy Reserve is to execute its stated vision of providing transparent and seamless administrative systems in support of its deployed force.

Most US Navy Reserve Sailors are familiar with a certain degree of extra administrative burden that is not felt as strongly by active duty Sailors. Reservists must learn the administrative system intimately and be prepared to shoulder responsibility for requirements that would be handled by personnel and pay departments in the fleet. It is a common joke that serving as a Selected Reservist (SELRES, or drilling reservist) is like having a second full time job for which you are paid one weekend a month. Reservists, in my experience, accept that responsibility with good humor and understanding in most situations.

When a reserve member is mobilized, however, the issues commonly snowball to an unacceptable level beginning on the day they report to the Expeditionary Combat Readiness Center in Norfolk, Virginia. During the first morning, reservists are told that “due to 1’s and 0’s issues” their allowance for lodging is not the US Navy’s official rate for their geographic location. Instead it is a lower total, set as part of the Integrated Lodging Program Pilot (ILPP). Most reservists will have made their lodging reservations months in advance and, due to Norfolk being a fleet concentration area, many will have been forced to obtain Certificates of Non-Availability (an official document certifying that DoD lodging was unavailable and authorizing the sailor to make arrangements elsewhere) and make reservations in non-DoD lodging, oftentimes at a higher rate than otherwise allowable. The gathered Sailors are informed that their CNA’s will not be honored due to incompatibility between the Navy’s travel management system and the new program. In layman’s terms, this means any sailor in lodging above the ILPP limit, even if unable to obtain any other DoD-approved lodging, will personally bear the cost of any overage and will not be reimbursed during the travel claim process. A large number of deployers leave at lunch on the first day to find new lodging. Those that are unsuccessful in finding lodging within a reasonable distance are left with the bill, regardless of their rank.

In the same morning, Sailors are informed that their travel claims (the document detailing all costs incurred by the sailor from the time they leave home until they reach their gaining deployed command) will not be reconciled within the Congressionally-mandated timeline of 30 days. These travel claims include air travel (procured at inordinately high rates via the DoD’s contracted travel service), weeks of lodging, and per diem allowances totaling several thousands of dollars. Most of these costs are incurred on each sailor’s Government Travel Credit Card (GTCC). For those unfamiliar, every member is required to apply for and employ a GTCC for any travel expenses incurred during duty status, and those cards are linked to each member’s personal credit rating. Members are advised that travel claims may take three to six months to be serviced but that the issue is “receiving flag-level attention.” Many members, to avoid late penalties and damage to personal credit, use their personal savings to settle the government’s bill or place the mobilization-related bills on personal credit cards – a direct violation of DoD policy and putting members at risk of disciplinary action. The issue, at best, depletes members’ savings or, at worst, negatively impacts members’ credit ratings, as the navy fails to reimburse Sailors for costs it has directed them to incur without an effective method of repayment. As a currently-deployed reservist, my detachment recently relieved a group of Sailors that had at least one sailor de-mobilizing (going home) after 270 days deployed whose travel claim still had not been reconciled. With three weeks to go until re-entering the civilian sphere, that sailor was still bearing a burden of thousands of dollars without any sign of resolution.

Pay issues, a problem not unfamiliar to both active duty and reserve Sailors, becomes a nightmare for mobilizing reservists. When Sailors are mobilized, they pass through multiple commands via intermediate stops (I-stops) delineated in their mobilization orders. Their Navy Operational Support Centers (NOSC’s) at home release them administratively and the fleet picks them up in a process that begins at ECRC. The administrative personnel at ECRC work hard, but are faced with processing dozens, sometimes over 100, Sailors each week. Each sailor is warned during their first week of mobilization that they will likely experience pay issues. While it is appropriate to warn deployers of this, it’s simply unacceptable and the warning of “pay issues” does not remotely approach an accurate description. More apt would be a warning that Sailors cannot rely on their employer, the US Navy, to compensate them sufficiently to pay their bills for a period of time that may be counted in months.

This practice of allowing known pay issues to languish would result in immediate dismissal for the parties responsible in any enterprise outside the DoD. For those that would rebut this allegation with the fact that the US Navy will eventually make those Sailors whole via backpay, that point is acknowledged but who pays Sailors’ bills in the interim? I have rented lodging my entire adult life and have yet to encounter the landlord that accepts IOU’s for months on end, nor the utility company that provides power on the promise of reimbursement, nor the grocery store that offers food on credit. Approaching our fifth month of deployment, my small detachment of five has one sailor being paid correctly. In the last pay period, I received $0.30 as my housing allowance for a month. My rent, for an average apartment - admittedly in one of the most expensive cities in the world, is over $3,000 (well-within the allowable limit for the locale). My Sailors come to me with concerns that they will be unable to support their wives at home or pay their mortgages. We’ve been told that the Personnel Support Detachment responsible for our unit is below 50% manning but they’re hiring and training the required staff to get our issues sorted out. If the DoN is paying those employees half of what they agreed to in their contracts, it is no wonder that they lack the necessary manpower to execute the required tasks. The one thing PSD has definitely accounted for are debts, any overages or incorrect allowances have been withdrawn within one pay period. These are not isolated incidents. Other reservists report their final paychecks were held by the Defense Finance and Accounting Service for 100 days beyond their re-deployment dates, exponentially multiplying the stress of re-integration at home. It is not only egregiously wrong, it degrades personal and unit readiness. Members are being plucked from their homes and workplaces and placed into a position of financial instability, draining personal savings and causing insecurity in families. Sailors’ minds are understandably divided between their deployed duties abroad and ensuring their loved ones are not put out into the street at home.
What if I can't pay my bill because I haven't received my reimbursement? 
- Cardholders are responsible for paying their monthly billing statement in-full, excluding any disputed transactions, by the due date indicated on the statement. Unpaid accounts are considered past due at 30 days beyond the billing date, and delinquent at 60 days beyond the billing date. Cardholders are responsible for payment regardless of the status of their travel reimbursements. If your due date is approaching and you’ve yet to receive reimbursement, please contact your travel approving official immediately.
- Defense Travel Management Office GTCC Frequently Asked Questions
As a starting-out proposition, reserve mobilization should be entirely funded via centrally-billed account (CBA) aligned to the Expeditionary Combat Readiness Center. It is inappropriate to force members to incur expenses via GTCC without a timely expectation of repayment. This issue is not anecdotal, nor confined to one small detachment. It is endemic and at this point has been reduced from a crisis to a planning consideration.

With regards to travel claims, I propose a mobilization stand-down until the timeline for reimbursement can be brought back within the 30 day requirement set forth by Congress. During the stand-down, an impartial third party should be engaged to conduct a thorough review of policies and business rules that allowed this vast backlog of debts to Sailors. While this is an extreme response, perhaps that extremity might offer motivation to self-assess rapidly and institute solutions, rather than simply briefing our deployers that they might not be repaid until after their 9-12 month deployments conclude.

In terms of fixing the pay system, it is past time to modernize. I know all Sailors reading this will be familiar with handwriting checking account information into a poorly-copied, off-center reproduction of the Navy’s electronic funds transfer form. I am also confident that most Sailors reading this have faced the issue of incorrect pay and fixes that take months to effect. Looking at Navy pay programs and websites is akin to taking a guided tour of the internet of the 1990’s. There are effective, modern solutions to paying personnel. Navy leadership need to choose one and implement it, preferably before the private sector jumps forward another generation in technology and leaves us even further behind.

If the language in this article seems impassioned, or perhaps accusatory, I suppose that is the case. The DoD owes better to its Sailors, and especially those it deploys into harm’s way. It is not enough to tell them that flag level officers are aware of their problems when those problems are damaging their personal credit, depleting their savings, and distressing their families. When we talk about personal sacrifice, are we acknowledging that in addition to leaving spouses and children, missing births and first days of school, and doing dangerous jobs in dangerous places, we’re asking Sailors to do those things without being adequately paid? As Claude Berube detailed for War on the Rocks earlier this year, the USNR has been plugging gaps in our force with reservists for the duration of the Global War on Terror, nearly two decades, but we’re still incapable of getting the right paycheck to those Sailors?

The Navy Reserve’s website proudly proclaims “Our Strength is our People...Every Sailor Matters.” The Expeditionary Combat Readiness Center’s motto is “Nauta Primoris...Sailors First.” It is hard to reconcile those proclamations with the accepted standard. I have no doubt that the staff of the ECRC are dedicated to their mission and doing their best, but they are hamstrung by a system that is not optimized to support a deployed reserve force. As a service, we must do right by our reservist deployers. Assume responsibility for the financial outlay of deploying Sailors, stand down mobilizations until Sailors are being reimbursed within the required timeline, and modernize our pay system to let Sailors focus on the jobs they are deployed to execute. To continue to fail in addressing this known issue is not just a readiness issue, but a breach of faith.

Lieutenant Blake Herzinger is an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, deployed to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, whose landlord won't accept flag level attention in lieu of rent. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent those of his civilian employer, the U.S. Navy, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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