Soldiers go unpaid thanks to Army payroll problems

Hoshang Hashimi/AP

Deficiencies in the Army’s payroll system have left many active-duty military members waiting months for paychecks and could hamper the Defense Department’s ability to achieve audit readiness in coming years.

A joint House and Senate Oversight committee heard testimony from Defense Department officials and an Ohio Army National Guardsman on Thursday. The guardsman, Lt. Col. Kirk Zecchini, said pay problems have become “a normal part of Army life.”

Zecchini described the pay problems he experienced during 28 years in various military capacities -- as a traditional guardsman; a full-time, active-duty soldier; and a federal technician.

During his first deployment to Afghanistan in 2003, Zecchini volunteered to serve an additional six months. Although this extension was published, his military pay stopped at the end of his original order. He served for more than a month in Afghanistan without pay until the issue was resolved.

After a series of posts throughout Southeast Asia, Zecchini waited one and a half years for special allowances such as hostile fire pay and hardship duty location pay that he was entitled to because of the nature of the missions. The pay finally came after he wrote a memo to Ohio’s inspector general. Later, while deployed in Iraq in 2005-2006, Zecchini’s unit was told that tax was being withheld from their paychecks and additional paperwork would be involved to have the money refunded.

Zecchini told the panel that pay problems have continued since he received an honorable discharge from the Ohio Army National Guard.

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., called Zecchini’s story striking given the anxiety that an overseas deployment placed on his family was compounded with worry about paying their mortgage on time.

“It also seems to me that this is not rocket science. The private sector somehow manages to do this every day of the week,” Connolly told the panel on Wednesday.

The problems, according to a new Government Accountability Office report, stem from Defense data systems that cannot efficiently identify and match the population of active-duty payroll accounts with personnel records.

Other military components, including the Navy and Air Force, share some of the same processes and system risk as the Army, GAO reported. The report calls the service’s active-duty military payroll -- approximately $46 billion in fiscal 2010 -- “significant” to both Army and Defense auditability goals.

The Defense Department is required by law to have prepared financial statements ready for audit by Sept. 30, 2017.

“Without effective processes for identifying a complete population of Army military pay records and comparing military pay accounts to personnel records, the Army will have difficulty meeting DoD’s 2014 Statement of Budgetary Resources audit readiness goal and its 2017 goal for a complete set of auditable financial statements,” the GAO report said.

Defense officials agreed payroll management systems needed improvement, and assured lawmakers efforts were in place to mend the situation in time for the Pentagon to meet its audit goals.

“For example, the Army is working with the Defense Finance and Accounting Service to develop and document an effective and repeatable process for identifying the population of active-duty military payroll accounts each fiscal year,” Army Audit Director James J. Watkins told the panel. “This represents our highest priority.”

The Army and DFAS implemented a new process last year that reconciles military personnel pay statements with summary financial reporting records monthly. Watkins called this change “a significant accomplishment.” The army also is mapping personnel and business processes and reviewing how it deals with its payroll-related documents, he said.

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