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National Guard pay delayed, denied

A congressional report obtained by NBC News finds the Pentagon’s pay process is such a mess it’s having “a profound financial impact on individual soldiers and their families.”
/ Source: NBC News

Soldiers with the National Guard are already under the gun in Iraq and Afghanistan. But now a new government report claims that while the troops are fighting far from home, red tape is preventing many of them from being paid.

While National Guard soldiers fulfill their duty, risking their lives around the world, the Pentagon apparently is not living up to its obligation to pay them the right amount or on time. That’s according to a new congressional report obtained by NBC News, which finds the Pentagon’s pay process is such a mess it’s having “a profound financial impact on individual soldiers and their families.”

“This is well beyond anything I could ever imagine,” said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., “I would like to think if we send people off to war that we’re not going to have them worry about whether their home is going to be taken because they can’t pay their mortgage.”

One sergeant, who wanted his identity concealed, said when his unit was in Afghanistan chasing al-Qaida terrorists, every single soldier had pay problems — mostly late or missing checks.

“It was very frustrating,” explained the sergeant, “it distracted you from the job at hand.… You have to worry about whether your family has enough food on the table.”

In six Guard units examined by the General Accounting Office, a stunning 94 percent of soldiers had pay problems, including:

Under- and over-payments.

Three-month delays in active duty checks.

Pay and benefits cut off for wounded soldiers in the hospital.

“They were being told they weren’t entitled to certain health care benefits, in spite of their injuries,” explained Shays. “I mean, there’s no one in the military who justifies that, but it’s shocking that it could happen.”

Pay problems were so bad that a sergeant in Uzbekistan put his life on the line to straighten them out. He was forced to fly to Oman, then to an Army finance office in Kuwait, then back to Oman and then was fired on by the enemy over Afghanistan on the return flight to Uzbekistan.

“When there were screw-ups and the military knew there were screw-ups,” said Shays, “they still had a hard time resolving them, … still gave grief to our men and women who were in active duty, still gave grief to the families back home.”

In one Colorado unit, soldiers had their checks docked, to pay off $48,000 each in debt they did not owe.

“They were mad, and they still are,” insists Sgt. Blair Donaldson of the Colorado Air National Guard, “and justifiably so.”

Wednesday night the Pentagon said only that it’s aware of the problem, agrees with the report, and is working to fix the system.

Lisa Myers is NBC News’ senior investigative correspondent, based in Washington, D.C.