Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Dysfunctional DoD

Jordon Fox – does the name mean anything to anyone other than his family and personal associates? Probably not, unless you happened to be listening to yesterday’s news summaries when his name was mentioned.

What about Tyson Johnson III or Robert Loria? No? Not surprising.

They are but three of the more than 29,000 U.S. service members wounded in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. They are also among the thousands of separated war veterans who have had to wrestle with a dysfunctional military medical bureaucracy to receive the medical and rehabilitative care to which they are entitled. Many have also had to wade, with little or no help, through the swamp of directives and forms associated with the military’s convoluted process that determines whether an injured soldier should be medically discharged and referred to the Veterans Administration for continuing medical treatment.

They are also three of an unknown number of injured service members who have been hit with debt notices from the Defense Finance and Accounting Office (DFAS).

Jordan Fox’s case is but the latest to break, briefly, above the media’s “human interest” horizon – and only because his mother was one of the prime movers behind “Operation Pittsburgh Pride,” a volunteer effort to send “care” packages to Pittsburgh-area service men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. President Bush noted and thanked her for her part in the project. Moreover, when Fox was seriously wounded by an improvised explosive device, Bush sent a letter to the family expressing his hope that the young soldier would recover.

Well, Jordan Fox did recover; so did Johnson and Loria. But they then found themselves struggling with serious financial wounds inflicted by the Pentagon – garnished wages, bad credit reports, and even pursuit by civilian debt collection agencies hired by the Pentagon if the money “owed” had not been completely paid back before the soldier was discharged.

It should be noted that DoD is required – as are all federal departments – to enforce a system that, at its roots, is optimized not to help individuals but to enforce bureaucratic accountability and conformity to the provisions of the Federal Claims Collection Act (1966), the Debt Collection Improvement Act (1982), and the Debt Collection Improvement Act (1996). These statutes are optimized for general and “impartial” application across a wide spectrum of contingencies. However, regardless of how wide the spectrum may be, it cannot even begin to deal with the universe of possible causes for these debts – including the mistakes of the bureaucracy.

In late April 2006, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report on military pay entitled “Hundreds of Battle-Injured GWOT Soldiers Have Struggled to Resolve Military Debt.” The GAO discovered that 1,300 former service members – including 400 who died in combat – were carried in military financial records as debtors to the federal government to the tune of $1.5 million.

Between the beginning of hostilities in Afghanistan in October 2001 and September 30, 2007, Congress has appropriated $604 billion for war and war-related activities in Iraq and Afghanistan. Specifically, Congress directed spending for:

Military Operations and Other Defense Activities: $533 Billion
Indigenous Security Force: $30 Billion
Diplomatic Activities and Foreign Aid: $39 Billion
Veterans Benefits and Services: $3 Billion

The $1.5 billion that the Pentagon wants to make soldiers pay back won’t even break the radar screen of Pentagon auditors looking for fraud, waste, and abuse in major acquisition programs. Pursuing the wounded and the fallen is not only churlish but confirms the negative image that many have of the military.

The real, long-term solution, if there is still a solution to be found, is to stop creating more wounded and more fallen soldiers by stopping the wars that create more veterans.

For that, everyone could give thanks tomorrow – Thanksgiving Day 2007.

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