Caitlin, a recently discharged sailor, was on the phone and in tears. She had just found out that she was pregnant. But because the Navy had fouled up her discharge paperwork, she couldn't get health care.
Staring at the prospect of becoming a parent without a way to cover the exorbitant cost of giving birth, Caitlin leveled with the woman on the other end of the phone when she called a central number for the military health care system.
She thought she might be forced to do something she didn't want to do: Get an abortion.
"I just don't see myself being able to bring a person into the world if I can't even provide for them," she explained on a call with Military.com last week.
She was waiting on a fairly perfunctory document, a DD-214. The form -- typically just a single sheet of paper -- contains details about a person's service including length, job specialties and awards earned. Perhaps most importantly, at the very end, the form documents the kind of discharge a service member received -- a key factor in determining eligibility for benefits like the GI Bill or Department of Veterans Affairs disability pay.
But sailors have spent months waiting to receive the documents. Delays with paperwork can seem like trivial issues, but sailors like Caitlin are facing life-altering consequences -- debt, medical decisions, and lives upended -- because the Navy has failed to deliver the DD-214s.
Military.com has received more than a dozen notes from service members asking for help getting their paperwork processed after a July story about similar paperwork delays included reference to a sailor receiving his orders just days after inquiries by a Military.com reporter.
Caitlin, whose name has been changed out of fear of retaliation, couldn't get health care as a civilian because, without a completed DD-214, the health care system saw her as still serving and covered by Tricare. And without a DD-214, she couldn't go to the VA and access benefits from that agency.
For its part, the service is pledging that it's close to solving the backlog and has dedicated more resources to the issue.
A Navy spokesman said that the sea service "expects to be caught up on correctly submitted separation transactions by 30 September."
But for months, sailors have been met by silence as they sought the documents that could allow them to move on with their lives, with some saying they are being burdened with stress and hardship that they don't deserve amid an already stressful time.
Questions like: "Are we going to have to push back closing on our house, or we're going to have to cancel that?" loomed for Michael, a sailor whose name has been changed out of fear of retaliation, who was also impacted by the delay.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Paul-Vincent Cuyugan, a sailor of 10 years, told Military.com that, without a DD-214, he can't even start to move his wife and four children out of their four-bedroom home. The military said his move would cost around $15,000 but, since time was running out, he got a quote from a private mover. That number was around $30,000.
When Military.com asked the Navy if there are any ongoing conversations among leaders to help separating sailors with any of the financial impacts of these delays, a Navy spokesman didn't directly answer the question but instead pointed out that 74% of separation and retirement packages -- about 850 transactions per week -- are submitted late. The spokesman added that the command overseeing this work "is preparing to formally mandate submission of separation and retirement packages at least 60 days prior to terminal leave to ensure ample time to issue a complete and accurate DD-214 prior to departing on terminal leave."
This is the second time that the Navy has suggested sailors, not its processes, are at the root of the problem.
"How are we going to have to move by ourselves while having three kids under the age of four?" Michael wondered out loud, before adding, "All this added stuff that we shouldn't have to think about ... the Navy was just supposed to do that."
The Change in How the Navy Handles Discharge Paperwork
All separation orders and DD-214s go through an office in Norfolk, Virginia.
Beginning in 2016, the service moved to consolidate its old personnel support and customer support detachments into a single command -- MyNavy Career Center, or MNCC. According to the Navy's Personnel Command spokesman, Cullen James, the move to replace the old, small personnel offices, which "lacked standardization," to centralized offices "[increases] efficiency and transaction accuracy."
James also noted that these new offices -- Transaction Service Centers (TSCs) -- are led by a commander or higher "to increase accountability and uphold a higher standard."
But sailors say that the consolidation has led to the lengthy delays they're experiencing.
Caitlin's command, based in Florida, told her "that the turnover took place overnight and lacked the appropriate time for training." Cuyugan said that, at his command, located in South Carolina, the problem "was discussed openly."
"A shift of it being one location pretty much screwed up a lot of places," the sailor explained.
Sailors aren't the only ones having trouble getting answers from the Navy about paperwork delays. Caitlin asked her congressman, Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, to look into the matter in early July. According to letters provided to her by his office, the Navy told Carter's staff that it would provide more details by mid-August. Then, in a letter dated Aug. 9, the Navy said it would now answer the office's questions about Caitlin's discharge in September.
In response to the backlogs that sailors have reported, the Navy has added a raft of personnel to help process the backlog.
In July, Rear Adm. Stu Satterwhite, commander of the MNCC and the service's "pay boss," said that he was pushing to surge personnel into TSCs across the Navy "to reduce the number of transactions awaiting completion," with the initial teams "expected to be in place by the end of July."
James told Military.com in an email that the Navy was "augmenting" its efforts in dealing with the separation backlog "with over 300 new civilian hires, overtime for our already high performing civilians, redirecting 45 [sailors] leaving sea duty and 'A' school graduates" directly to these centers, as well as "increasing contractor support for PCS travel claim and separation and retirement processing."
In the fleet, however, there are concerns that the flood of personnel is not helping the problem as much as the Navy would like. Michael, who had been trying to move his family of five, said his leaders at Great Lakes, Illinois, told him that the Norfolk location was "backlogged and had inexperienced people trying to generate these orders and that is why it was taking so long."
The Navy seems to agree. In July, James told Military.com that "there is a lack of Personnel/Pay knowledge, expertise, and lack of communication among the Command Pay and Personnel Administrators (CPPA), their command triads, and the Fleet as a whole" and the service was planning on having several days of training for these individuals -- usually the main point of contact at a command between the individual sailor and the greater Navy personnel system.
James said the training, which was held at the beginning of August, "was well received and found to be very helpful in getting after correcting many common mistakes made when submitting" claims like separations and retirements, among others.
When asked about the exact composition of workers at the Norfolk TSC, James said that the center "has an integrated staff of military, government civilian, and contractors" but would not go into more detail.
Sailors Trying to Find Any Solution
Although the Navy has repeatedly pointed to delays by sailors as being the root of the problem, most of the service members that Military.com spoke to in researching this issue say they submitted their paperwork on or ahead of time. Those who had submitted late often described issues that were caused by mistakes made by those who received their paperwork.
Caitlin, for example, said that "even though I had my paperwork submitted well before the 60-day mark" before her separation-- the Navy's deadline to have everything processed on time -- the person handling her discharge "sent it to Millington, instead of sending it to Norfolk, which put me behind."
This confusion leaves sailors feeling that no amount of preparation is enough to shield them from the consequences of a discharge without a DD-214 or even separation orders.
Caitlin said she kept "hearing these horror stories" about getting separation paperwork, so she started laying the groundwork for her departure from the Navy early.
"Even before I went on terminal leave, I contacted my congressman, because I wanted to be proactive about this," she explained. She also got her command to give her a "statement of service" -- a document that is like a DD-214 but is authored and signed by a local command, not the Navy's personnel officials.
"But, of course, the VA doesn't accept it for anything, apparently," she added.
The woman Caitlin reached on the phone from the military health system seemed reluctant to help until Caitlin described that she was considering an abortion. "I think she could kind of hear the desperation, and I was crying," she said.
"She put me on hold for a while, talked to supervisors, talked to analysts and ... literally 10 minutes later, I'm in a UPS store faxing a copy of the statement of service."
The fact that it took disclosing considerations of such a personal decision to get action is "just awful" to Caitlin. "It's like the past eight years was pointless -- that's kind of how it makes you feel."
For many other sailors, the professional and financial issues caused by the delays haven't been resolved, no matter how hard they've tried.
Cuyugan, like Michael, couldn't get a move initiated for his family without his paperwork. That means he has been unable to move from South Carolina to California, a delay that may cost him his post-Navy job.
"I had everything prepped up last year and everything like that [so] when the time came it would be set in stone and then I could just get out," he explained. He hasn't even seen his separation orders, despite being on terminal leave for weeks.
Cuyugan said that even if he wanted to pay for a private move and get reimbursed by the Navy down the road, he can't -- he doesn't have that kind of money. Meanwhile, his future employer in California has been understanding but told him that if he's not able to start around the time they planned, they would have to find someone else for the role.
In Michael's case, his wife felt that the delays, "when the last 10 years, and pretty much our entire marriage, has been dictated by what the military says we can do and when we can do it," were hurtful and frustrating.
"The only thing you're doing is holding us hostage," she said.
Editor's note: Shortly after publication, the Navy provided additional answers to questions that were posed to it earlier this week. That material has been added to the article.
-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.