Lawmakers are asking military leaders why troops' personal vehicles shipped to overseas posts have been delayed and, in some cases, gone missing in transit.
Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, a Democrat from Hawaii and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, took up the issue in a July 29 letter to Gen. Paul Silva, head of U.S. Transportation Command, known in military parlance as TRANSCOM.
"My office has been continually made aware of customer complaints that the contractor has been responsible for late shipments, difficulty locating vehicles, and other unsatisfactory performance of the contract," she wrote.
The grievances began piling up in recent weeks after a new defense contractor, International Auto Logistics, took over the shipping service. The Brunswick, Georgia-based subsidiary of the IAP Group was awarded the $350 million contract last fall, but a protest delayed the takeover to May 1, the start of peak moving season for military members.
An online system that's supposed to track the location of the vehicles often contains incorrect information, users say. Help lines with the company go unanswered, voicemail boxes are full, and vehicles seem to be outright missing as company representatives give conflicting reports as to the location of the cars, troops and their families say.
"I have asked TRANSCOM for an evaluation of current operations including explaining why, months into this contract, the contractor still does not have an effective tracking system in place," Hanabusa said in a separate statement this week. "I hope their response indicates real progress toward solutions that will provide our military personnel with the service they deserve."
Hanabusa, whose district includes Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam and Fort Shafter, isn't alone. Sen. David Vitter, R-Louisiana, in a June 25 letter to the command asked whether IAL is performing at the level required by the contract. Other lawmakers such as Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-California, and Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said they're looking into the matter.
Hanabusa was among a group of lawmakers who earlier this year voiced concern to the military command over the contractor changeover. Because IAL was a relatively new, smaller company compared to the previous company, American Auto Logistics, the lawmakers worried the transition would be anything but smooth.
At the time, officials said they saw no reason for concern.
"We have looked at the accusations and found nothing that would cause us to reverse our decision, or [raise] red flags," Gen. William Fraser, then the TRANSCOM commander, told the House Armed Services Committee.
The Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command, or SDDC, the TRANSCOM wing that oversees the vehicle shipping program, is aware of the problems, officials said. The command is working with the contractor to ensure troops can use the online tracking system to find information about their car's location or, if necessary, contact representatives to discuss their concerns, they said.
"The first step is the customer absolutely needs to have someone from IAL that they can get on telephone or by e-mail, and that will stop some of the panic that no one is listening," Navy Capt. Aaron Stanley, SDDC's chief of personal property, said in an interview.
Stanley also said the number of calls his command has received from service members and their families has skyrocketed from around 15 a week in mid-July to about 500 this week. The contractor has hired a commercial call center in Jacksonville, Florida, to handle the volume of queries. It's set to be in operation early next week, he said.
Stanley said that to his knowledge no vehicles have actually been lost. "I don't have any evidence that we've lost any vehicles," he said. "Loss of visibility, perhaps, missed [delivery dates] absolutely but we have not lost any vehicles."
Regardless, a new Facebook page dedicated to sharing information about the problem, "International Auto Logistics: Reviews, Complaints, and Inconveniences," continues to grow in popularity. There were more than 800 members of the group as of Aug. 1, up from 160 members as of July 29.
According to posts on the website, some service members have gone so far as to file stolen vehicle claims with their insurance companies because IAL officials couldn't tell them where their car was after having missed the delivery date.
"USAA is advising me to file a stolen car claim on Monday as we have been in talks for a week on what to do since nobody knows anything about my vehicle," wrote Adam Hardin, who described himself as a sailor stationed in Hawaii.
"I think it is incredible that this is their business, this is your job and you don't know how to track something or where it is or even who may have it where," he added. "As of now, I am on Day 44 of a rental. They say they will reimburse me, but if they are this incompetent, I am sure I will not see any of the money owed."
Indeed, USAA is encouraging service members to contact their insurance companies to determine whether they have policies that cover vehicles lost in this kind of situation, a spokeswoman said.
"We'd encourage our members to contact us directly to discuss their individual situation and if coverage applies for their individual policy," said Rebecca Hirsch, a spokeswoman for the San Antonio, Texas-based financial services group. "We'd also encourage those insured by other insurance carriers to contact them as soon as possible to understand their options."
To handle the negative publicity, IAL this week hired public relations firm Endeavor Strategic Communications, whose founder, Kurt Bardella, was fired from the office of Rep. Darrell Issa, R-California, after leaking exchanges with reporters to New York Times journalist Mark Leibovich for his book, "This Town."
Amanda Nunez, a spokeswoman for Endeavor Strategic Communications, said IAL has more than 20,000 customers relying on its services.
"As is with the case with any company that provides a service, there is always room for improvement," she said in an e-mail. "Since we began working with military personnel in May, we have been growing, adding customer support personnel and expanding the volume of customers we serve."
-- Amy Bushatz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org