- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 30, 2006

This is the fourth in a series of occasional editorials on wounded servicemen returning from Iraq.

A terrible irony has befallen some 900 battle-injured service members and the families of 400 more who died: Owing mostly to government payroll glitches, a collection agency came knocking to chase “debts” that were often erroneous and more often than not the government’s fault.

That’s the conclusion the Government Accountability Office announced last week in a study that should spur lawmakers to fix the military’s antiquated pay system.

One Guardsman the GAO highlights was chased down for $12,662 in pay after he was erroneously categorized as AWOL. It turned out he had been laying in a coma at a Veterans Administration hospital. Word apparently never reached the right people in payroll. The Guardsman’s family reportedly went without income while the debt was recouped and his daughter was sent to live with relatives out of state.

Others were unable to take out loans or buy houses because of often erroneous charges of anywhere from $500 to $15,000. One service member’s tax refund was docked. Some ended up paying higher interest rates on cars and other purchases because of the effect the “debts” had upon their credit ratings.

In total, some 1,300 wounded or deceased service members or their families have been chased down for over $1.5 million in service-related charges, nearly three-quarters of which the GAO attributes to government error, including pay calculation errors, overpayment of benefits and improper calculation of leave. The other quarter pertained to unpaid housing, medical, insurance or travel costs; rescinded bonuses for those who did not fulfill service requirements; and lost or damaged military equipment.

“Debt collection actions have placed significant hardship on … battle-injured soldiers and their family members,” the GAO concludes in language uncommonly strong for the source.

Congress has been eyeing this problem since it first emerged publicly about three years ago. That’s to the good, as is the attention shown by the Pentagon’s leadership. But this report shows that not enough has been done. The number of debts the GAO flagged mushroomed from 404 totalling $128,230 at the end of fiscal year 2002 to 2,324 totalling over $1.5 million at the end of fiscal year 2005. If the internal payroll problems have since been corrected, there is still little or no public evidence to show it. The problem has gotten worse each year since 2003.

As it happens, the law which provides for the forgiveness of military-related debts for wounded and fallen service members does not cover everyone. The debt-relief provisions of the fiscal year 2006 National Defense Authorization Act “do not apply to debts of battle-injured soldiers who separated from the service during fiscal years 2002 through at least the first part of fiscal year 2005.” Worse, the law we have is due to expire after 2007, meaning that it is “possible that some battle-injured and fallen soldier debts may be subject to collection through credit bureau reporting and private collection agency” actions.

We should all be able to agree that red tape and financial hardship should be the last things a paraplegic or brain-injured soldier should have to contend with as he or she recovers. Lawmakers should expand debt relief for injured or fallen veterans and make the provisions permanent. The sums are tiny relative to the overall budget. And it’s beyond reason to think that these heroes owe the public any more than they’ve already given.

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