In 2009, the U.S. Department of Defense Inspector General audited how six Naval payroll centers in San Diego handle combat-zone pay for military personnel serving in Southwest Asia, including Iraq and Afghanistan. In January, the IG issued its alarming findings: 60 percent of the centers' payroll records were incomplete, resulting in $270,000 in overpayments that service members likely will have to return to the government.
According to the IG, Naval enlistees can blame the bookkeepers.
The best San Diego disbursing center had complete documentation for half of its cases. The worst center had no documentation for 94 percent of its cases. According to the report, this is a result of communication lapses between centers and the correlating field offices in the combat zones. The Navy has promised to fix that immediately.
A soldier can collect $225 per month in “hostile fire / imminent danger” pay, regardless of whether he's in a combat region for one day or four weeks. After 30 days, the member can pick up an extra $4.44 per day in “hardship duty” pay, and members whose dependents are located away from the members' permanent base can pick up a daily $8.33 “family separation allowance.” Members also receive a tax exemption when they're serving in a combat zone.
Military payroll is notorious for its errors, says Tom Richards, a member of the California Veterans Board and former chairperson of the San Diego County United Veterans Council.
“I think it's despicable that the government doesn't take responsibility for its mistakes and says, ‘Regardless of your hardship, we're taking the money back,'” says Richards, who once had to live off $70 per month while he paid back bonuses he shouldn't have received.
The IG provides an example in which a sailor was hit with a $4,200 bill after the disbursing center mistakenly paid him the family-separation credit and failed to stop his compensation when he left the combat zone.
Stacie Gonzalez, an eight-year Navy veteran whose husband is currently on active duty, says that when he returned from Iraq or Afghanistan, there would, “without a doubt,” be a payroll problem.
“They'd realize it was a mistake and take it out all at once,” Gonzalez says. “We would be left with no paycheck. They don't ever really tell you. All of a sudden, they would dock the pay.”
But some argue that military personnel should be prepared for payroll errors.
“Any good division officer or chief will tell their sailors not to spend any extra money they receive in error because it's bound to be taken away eventually,” says former Naval officer Ashley Pingree Lewis, who was deployed twice to the Middle East.
But more than 750 sailors and their families will be getting money back. The IG found that the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, a cross-military accounting division, miscalculated hostile-fire pay; instead of paying the monthly compensation, staff paid sailors the per-day rate, shortchanging each an average of $83. The Navy is sending out letters to members and their families, who will have 60 days to respond.