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After Answering Call to Duty, They Get a Busy Signal

Army bureaucracy stymies a Lancaster couple who served in war on terror. The two strain to get by while waiting for back pay.

March 27, 2004|Geoffrey Mohan | Times Staff Writer

Heather Erkel and Christopher Hagen served their country in the war on terror and are proud of it. They're also on the brink of bankruptcy, and are not so proud of that.

Since the end of January, the Lancaster couple have been battling the Army for more than $3,500 they say they're owed.

Pentagon officials concede the money should be paid, but so far have been unable to get the couple their checks. So, at a time when they thought they would be rejoining a middle-class civilian life, Erkel and Hagen have been struggling to pay bills while living with a relative and caring for a newborn son.

"I don't want to get anybody in trouble," Erkel said of the couple's travails. "I just want to get our money and move on with our life."

The pair met when Erkel, a 23-year-old reservist who works as a clerk with the Lancaster school district, was mobilized to Ft. Lewis, Wash., as part of the 368th Military Intelligence Battalion. Hagen, 38 and part of the 64th Engineer Battalion, was an active-duty specialist, making maps for combat troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

They married in October, and were honorably discharged at the end of the year. Erkel gave birth to a son in February and has been on maternity leave from the school district.

Since then, they've been telephoning Army bureaucrats from Washington state to Indianapolis over the whereabouts of his final paycheck of about $2,500 and her $1,000 uniform allowance pay. They have fallen behind on car payments as well as credit card bills while Hagen struggles to find a job with his mapmaking training.

After several weeks, Ft. Lewis officials told the couple they had no record of Hagen's service. Joe Hitt, a civilian public affairs official at the base, said that was because "when he leaves, his documents go with him." As for Erkel's concluded Army Reserve contract, Hitt said: "If she's gone from here, her records are gone with her, too."

The best suggestion Hitt could offer the couple was to submit their own paperwork and make a claim against the government.

"I don't even know where to go at this point," Erkel said in late February.

"The irony is, both of us were proud to serve," Hagen said. "We really -- other than the bureaucracy -- have nothing bad to say about the Army. The only thing we want is our pay."

When asked shortly afterward about the case, Bryan Hubbard, a senior public affairs officer for the Defense Finance and Accounting System -- the paymaster for the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines -- said he had looked into the issue and found that Hagen's discharge forms had not been properly completed and lacked a forwarding address.

"The upshot is, as soon as we get his forwarding address, he'll get his money," Hubbard said.

His agency pays 5.9 million people, "but every one of them is important," Hubbard said then.

That was nearly a month ago.

Hagen insists he passed through more than a dozen checkpoints while being mustered out. But he called Ft. Lewis to leave his address again. Two weeks went by. No money showed up.

Last week, Hubbard explained that Hagen's unit was still working on the paperwork -- the same paperwork Hagen swears he filled out three months ago. When Hagen called a sergeant major at the finance unit, he was told they'd been waiting to hear from him as well.

Hagen was flabbergasted. "I've been trying to get in touch with them for months," he said. "I have no idea what's going on. This is ridiculous."

Hagen then was told to call the sergeant major in charge of the finance division at Ft. Lewis, who repeated that they had no way of contacting Hagen.

"I said, sergeant major, with all due respect, I've been calling and leaving messages for three months," Hagen recalled. They have his address now, and they promise to pay him, Hagen said.

As for Erkel, finance officers in Indianapolis have assured her that her nearly $1,000 in uniform allowance is on the way as well.

As of Friday, neither had received a check.

"Nothing has changed," Erkel said Tuesday. "Even if it's something we didn't do, just tell us. Tell us two months ago."

The couple's troubles with the pay system are not unique, and the Pentagon has embarked on a multimillion-dollar revamping of its entire personnel system by 2007. In the meantime, an interim "forward compatible" payroll system, designed with deployments in mind, is slated to go on line next year, Hubbard said.

A report in November by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, criticized the Pentagon for snafus involving pay problems with National Guard units mobilized for the war on terror. The payroll system, the report said, was "so cumbersome and complex that neither DOD [Department of Defense], nor more importantly, the mobilized National Guard soldiers, could be reasonably assured of timely and accurate payroll payments."

Hubbard stressed that two parallel systems are used to pay active troops and those in reserve or Guard units.

Still, the Pentagon acknowledged in congressional testimony two years ago that its overall pay and personnel system had "major deficiencies." In a letter to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld last October, the GAO also characterized the pay system as "aging, unresponsive and fragile, and ... a major impediment to efficient and high quality customer service."

In recent testimony about the GAO findings on National Guard troops, Ernest Gregory, the Army's top payroll official, acknowledged the payroll and personnel system was "manual, labor-intensive, mistake prone and does not produce immediate results."

Hagen can testify to that assessment. "Honestly, I passed being angry a month ago," he said.

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