Airmen

As Air Force senior leaders struggle mightily to address morale, they continue to get “help” from all the standard support agencies. This time, it’s Finance’s turn. It’s yet another example of avoidable mistakes creating sizeable consequences with zero noticeable accountability. And as usual, it’s those toward the bottom of the rank structure who will pay — this time literally.

Sometime in 2015, the local finance office at Lackland Air Force Base made an error impacting the pay records of 418 airmen who were going through basic training. This error resulted in a pay shortage that was rectified by giving each airman a series of quick cash infusions amounting to $400. When the error was later permanently fixed, Lackland failed to close the loop properly by reclaiming the $168,000 in cumulative payouts, and the matter promptly faded into the bureaucratic background.

That is, until now. It seems an enterprising cubicle-dweller somewhere in the vast finance adminplex stumbled across the unresolved issue recently. The results are a sadly predictable example of a lumbering bureaucracy so addicted to a can’t-help culture that it seemingly always finds a way to resolve any situation in the manner least favorable to those allegedly being supported.

Here’s an internal email telling the tale.

—–Original Message—–
From: Schaefer, Jessi R Lt Col USAF 502 ABW (US)
Sent: Tuesday, March 28, 2017 9:34 AM

My Fellow Comptrollers,

During a recent audit of Basic Military Training (BMT) payment vouchers,
the Joint Base San Antonio (JBSA) disbursing team discovered an aged
collection voucher from 2015 which listed partial payments for 418 basic
trainees (at the time). Each trainee received $400 in partial payments by
means of an EZpay card (think debit card). These payments were paid to the
members, but once the military pay records were established, the military
pay team did not process the partial payment transaction against the
military pay record. If this step had occurred, the pay system would’ve
automatically deducted the $400 partial pay from the balance of each
trainee’s first pay check. Since this step in the process did not occur,
each of the military members owe $400.

Most of the impacted members identified in the attached spreadsheet have
since moved from JBSA and currently serve across the globe at many of your
servicing locations. At the beginning of June, the 502 CPTS FSO team will
process one mass transaction to enter each member’s $400 2015 BMT partial
payment. The transaction will impact the members’ mid-month June paycheck,
where they will see a $400 deduction.

You are the first community at large to receive notification this issue. We
will begin individual member notifications via email on Thursday, 30 Mar
2017, but wanted to ensure the Comptroller Squadrons understood the scope of
the problem and the plan moving forward, so your customer service teams are
in the best position to support these members.

We humbly request your assistance to ensure members are both notified
properly and offered the local finance support necessary to navigate this
unexpected pay deduction. We will email each member directly, but in order
to ensure every Amn is notified, we request you reach out to each members’
Squadron Commanders and First Sergeants. This will ensure the widest
dissemination of information. Please be sure to review the entire list to
include any GSUs/tenants your squadrons support.

Because the $400 was a partial pay advance, a waiver or remission is not
possible. We’ve confirmed this through the AFIMSC, AFAFO, and DFAS channels.
We explored, and eliminated, the possibility of creating payment plans for
the individuals involved to avoid a single payment of $400. The pay system
doesn’t provide the option of splitting partial payments into smaller,
incremental payments.

Our primary concern is that the Airmen involved receive prompt notification,
so they are in the best financial position possible to absorb the mid-June
payroll deduction. If needed, helping agencies such as the Air Force Assistance
Fund, local charities, and the banks or credit unions on your installations have resources to assist
the Airmen who are impacted the most. Should any extraordinary personal
hardships or unmanageable emergency situations arise as a result of this
transaction that cannot be mitigated locally, please feel free to reach back
to the 502d Comptroller Squadron Financial Services team. We stand by ready
to support our Airmen in any way possible. Our contact information is
listed below:

502CPTS.FSOManagement@us.af.mil

The 502d ABW/CC will follow this email with a notification to your Wing
Commanders later this week.

Thank-you for your support on this issue.

v/r
Lt Col Schaefer

The main reason to share this email is to help get the word out so those who are impacted can learn about it at the speed of social media rather than wait for “official channels.” But since we’re sharing it, there are a few things to lament and a few questions worth asking.

The irritating aspect of Jess Schaefer’s mainly informative and objective email is the open contemplation that this will cause hardship for some airmen … coupled with the complete sense of helplessness about preventing that impact. The general rule of leadership is to take care of people, which starts with refraining from actions that we know will harm their interests. If this is going to create hardship, let’s find another way to handle it.

Maybe that way is to simply write off the $168,000. It obviously hasn’t been missed in the last two years and likely won’t be missed any time soon given that the Air Force is unlikely to pass an audit while anyone reading this continues to inhabit the Earth. Maybe if the Air Force had to write this debt off, it would be forced to explain how it made the error in the first place, and to bridge that explanation by explaining how it will prevent recurrence — a bridge that would probably have to include individual accountability. This is how mistakes generate responsible remedies, and it’s how organizations get better. The Air Force’s unwillingness to hold its finance bureaucracy accountable explains why support to airmen has been degrading over the past several years.

Maybe a better way to handle it would be to simply trim the fat from the travel budgets of senior leaders, including those who operate DFAS. I’m guessing the paralyzing inflexibility created by DFAS’s mountain of red tape currently doesn’t permit this because “buckets of money” or something. But certainly a waiver could be pursued and secured via appropriate legislation if leaders care enough to make it a priority. Pick any agency and any senior leader. Cancel that senior leader’s next 10 hours of travel aboard an executive jet or re-purposed cargo aircraft. That will get you most if not all of the way.

The best solution probably needn’t be so charitable as to forgive the debt altogether, but to spread out the repayment. Rather than take 20% of an A1C’s monthly pay at a whack, basically wiping out an entire month’s discretionary income for many if not most, why not work out a schedule that doesn’t create hardship? We get in the email that this option has been “explored and eliminated,” but this is insufficient. There is a way to do it, and it’s up to those who created the mess (and their bosses) to find that way rather than create yet another distraction from the mission. Turns out people have a hard time focusing on the task at hand when they don’t have enough money to satisfy their obligations.

Every one of these “oops” vignettes involving key support is an opportunity for Gen. Goldfein’s staff and his leadership team to continue showing they are paying attention and fully invested in doing right by airmen. It’ll be interesting to note whether they wade into this one, which involves a relatively tiny amount of money in the grand scheme of things but stands to create a huge impact for 418 airmen who have yet to make their first decision about whether to seek reenlistment.