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Several retired members of the Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserve say they have struggled to receive their pensions, a problem that military officials attribute to a beleaguered workforce and technology that one former general called "shamefully outdated." Some retirees say they have waited months to receive the financial support and health benefits owed to them after 20 years of service.
NBC News spoke with half a dozen former Air National Guard and Reserve members who in the last two years have waited weeks or months past the date of when they expected to receive their pension. Some eventually received their money but had to endure months of no income while waiting.
In interviews, the retired service members say they are forced to endlessly navigate automated phone systems for hours and receive generic email responses when they request specific details about the state of their pensions.
“I worked so hard. I showed up. I did the best job I could for my patients in Air Force hospitals, and this was a benefit that I never thought I would have to beg and plead and fight to get,” said retired Lt. Col. Jackie Brich, who received her benefits and back pay more than six months after they were due.
Current and former military officials describe a system that is susceptible to a pileup of requests because of technology issues and overworked employees.
Retired Brig. Gen. Jeff Cashman, who served as the director of the National Guard Manpower, Personnel and Services until 2017, told NBC News that the technology element remains a major hurdle, calling it a “handicap” and “shamefully outdated.”
The service is regularly forced to turn to manpower surges, with the latest happening in February, Cashman explained, to “treat the worst of the symptoms without addressing the underlying cause.”
“The Air Force is so crippled by bad pay and personnel IT systems that we have abandoned excellence and resigned ourselves to aspirational goals of ‘only 1 or 2 months late,’” Cashman said.
The Air Reserve Personnel Center, which manages the records of Air National Guard and Reserve service members and handles retirement requests, said in a news release last week that it allocated additional manpower in February “to reduce the inventory of retirement applications for Guard and Reserve members turning 60 years of age.”
Maj. Joseph Simms, a spokesman for the personnel center, told NBC News that the agency had to bring in 12 additional technicians to work on a backlog of 2,200 applications that stretched from August 2018 to February. More than half of the 33 technicians worked six 10-hour days each week of February to catch up.
The reason for the backlog, Simms said, is a mix of problems that included a sudden loss of its trained workforce and the agency's need to maintain a call center until August — which it supported since at least 2015.
But Christine Lynn, the center’s deputy director of personnel and total force services, added that the personnel center faces ongoing issues with its Military Personnel Data System, which the Air Force uses to manage its personnel records and to maintain data from a member’s career.
Sometimes technicians simply can’t log in, an issue that can last for days but which the center has little control over because it is a system managed by a separate entity.
“It happens fairly consistently, sadly,” Lynn said.
But she said that after a self-audit in October prompted by the delays, the personnel center has worked to streamline the process by reallocating its workflow and pursue elements of automation, which are currently in their testing phase.
“We feel confident that we are going to be able to provide better service to our customers now,” she said, though noting that they would still face the delays because of the data system.
Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who announced last week that he was running for president, said that his staff had briefed him on the issue and that he hoped to ensure that the Air Force Personnel Center receives a modernized system so that retirement orders can be sent out on time. He said he hopes to push the issue forward in the House Appropriations Committee, on which he serves.
"Before we give them money, we want to make sure they get the job done,” Ryan said of the Defense Department. “We don’t want to hear excuses. People retire. You account for it. You plan for it and you make sure retirees are getting their payment on time. You hire and fill positions accordingly to make sure that goal is being met."
Paul Blanzy is one veteran who is still waiting. He served two tours in Afghanistan before he retired from the Air National Guard in 2013 after 30 years in the military. Because of his tours overseas, he is eligible for retirement early — which should have been more than six months ago.
“It’s very frustrating for me that I can’t do anything to help myself or help these other airmen,” Blanzy said. “And it’s really frustrating that our senior leadership aren’t doing their jobs.”
While Blanzy still hasn't received his pension, he said he is now starting to help a friend from his time in the service navigate his own retirement application. The friend’s 60th birthday, when benefits should be disbursed, is in July.
“I’m going to try and walk him through that system, so he gets started well ahead of time,” Blanzy said. “I just hope they’ll do a better job for him.”