LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Even as the Army faces shrinking budgets, an audit shows it paid out $16 million in paychecks over a 2 1/2-year period to soldiers designated as AWOL or as deserters, the second time since 2006 the military has been dinged for the error.
A memo issued by Human Resources Command at Fort Knox, Ky., found that the Army lacked sufficient controls to enforce policies and procedures for reporting deserters and absentee soldiers to cut off their pay and benefits immediately. The oversight was blamed primarily on a failure by commanders to fill out paperwork in a timely manner.
The payments from 2010 to 2012 represent only a fraction of the Army's nearly $44 billion projected payroll for 2013, but auditors and a watchdog group derided the waste as government agencies grapple with the automatic federal spending cuts known as sequestration.
"In this current environment of scarce resources, this is unacceptable," auditors wrote in a July memo sent by the Department of Defense across the Army, including to the U.S. Army Deserter Information Point and Human Resources Command.
The Defense Department says 466 service members across all branches were listed as absent without leave or as deserters in 2012; the agency did not have a tally specific to the Army. However, the $16 million represents 9,000 individual direct deposit payments, suggesting at least some of the soldiers received several paychecks before the problem was corrected.
The audit marks the second time in the past seven years the Army has come under scrutiny for paying soldiers who did not report for duty when called up. The audit outlines what steps should be taken across the Army to ensure deserters and soldiers who are absent without leave don't get pay or benefits.
A more narrowly focused 2006 audit by the Government Accountability Office found the Army paid 68 soldiers about $684,000 while the soldiers were considered deserters. That review, by Gregory D. Kutz, the managing director of forensic audits and special investigations for the GAO, focused on the 1004th Quartermaster Company in Greensburg, Pa.
The audit issued in July called on Human Resources Command to establish standards for commanders to provide status updates of AWOL soldiers and deserters on a regular basis. The message also directs commanders throughout the Army to follow up on all in-transit soldiers who do not arrive on their report dates and to place a strong emphasis on the status of absentee soldiers.
Auditors found that commanders weren't filling out paperwork on absent soldiers in a timely manner, so the orders to stop pay weren't being processed and absent soldiers were still being paid. The latest audit comes as the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps are projected to slash $52 billion from the defense budget for the 2014 fiscal year under automatic spending cuts that kicked in March 1.
The Army classifies a deserter as someone who drops from the rolls of a unit after being absent without authority for 30 or more consecutive days. Soldiers who join the military of another country, seek political asylum or live in a foreign country are also considered deserters.
Kutz included in the audit recommendations that the Army develop a strategy for tracking possible desertion cases and possibly initiating criminal actions against deserters who took unearned pay. The note in July reiterates some of Kutz's recommendations and points to new regulations requiring stricter tracking and processing of soldiers who don't report for duty.
"The purpose of this message is to reinforce current policy and actions to be taken by commanders and staff offices to alleviate the situation," the All Army Activities memo states.
U.S. Rep. C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger, who was among four congressmen to request the 2006 audit, said he was troubled to see the problem persist particularly in light of the current financial and budget challenges the government faces. Ruppersberger, D-Md., said Army leadership has assured him that corrective actions are being taken, including efforts to recoup the money paid.
"Deserting our military is a serious offense, and these men and women - and the unit commanders in charge of the personnel paperwork - need to be held accountable," Ruppersberger said. "It's also unfair to the vast majority of troops putting their lives on the line and honorably serving our country every day."
An Army spokesman said AWOL soldiers or soldiers considered deserters must repay any earned benefits if they are dismissed from the military. Refusing to do so could lead to the debt being turned over to a collection agency. Soldiers who return to duty may have their wages garnished to cover the debt. A Defense Department spokesman knew of no similar audit for other branches of the military.
Sean Kennedy, director of research for the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste, said the audit results were "pretty crazy." It appears there's little incentive to fix the problem, even though it has been pointed out multiple times, Kennedy said.
"It's a drop in the bucket compared to the larger Army bucket, but the GAO identified this years ago, and it was never fixed," Kennedy said. "Before the Army cries poor again, they should look internally for waste that can be eliminated. This is an example of that."