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How Bureaucracy (Doesn't) Work

Dec 2, 2017
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The Army is doing a quick shuffle on the case of a Pittsburgh-area soldier who was asked to repay part of his re-enlistment bonus–after being badly wounded in Iraq and medically retired from the service.

As KDKA-TV reported on Tuesday, Jordan Fox received a letter from the Army earlier this year, asking him to return more than $3,000 from his re-enlistment bonus. The letter arrived not long after Fox was injured in a roadside bomb attack that left him blind in one eye. According to the Army, Fox was required to repay part of the bonus, because he was unable to finish his military tour.

Now, the Pentagon is taking a different approach, claiming that the letter was an error, and asking for a chance to make things right.

“… A military spokesman told KDKA’s Marty Griffin the bill sent to Fox was a mistake.

Griffin asked Army Spokesperson Major Nathan Banks if the government was taking on Fox’s case.Banks said via phone, “We are. We are … definitely working it out. We have seen where the problems have been made, the system, and we’re just making – you know, give us the opportunity to make a wrong a right.”

Major Banks says Fox will not have to pay back his bonus. Fox says “fine,” but he wants more.

“Hopefully this will turn into change for not only me but many other soldiers that have lost limbs, you know, become permanently deaf,” he said. “I hope to see a change for everybody.”

As a retired military officer, I have no doubt that the letter was a mistake. And, I have no reason to believe that the Army isn’t trying to rectify the situation.

But, having dealt with the military bureaucracy for three decades, I’m not convinced that Fox–and other wounded vets–won’t receive similar letters in the future. Here’s why:

The military, like the rest of the federal government, operates under personnel and compensation rules that are, at times, obtuse, confusing and even contradictory. Making matters worse, many of these databases can’t share information, due to the Privacy Act or technical problems.

Enter Private Fox. Somewhere, an Army finance system showed that Fox was discharged before his tour was up, and that he received a reenlistment bonus. Based on the early release and the amount paid, the “system” determined that Fox must refund part of that money.

Meanwhile, other databases (correctly) identified Fox as a wounded warrior who had to leave the military due to combat-related injuries. If the compensation system could only communicate with the appropriate personnel databases, then Fox wouldn’t have received that letter, demanding a refund.

The key word here is “could.” Talk to anyone who’s worked with military computers, and you’ll hear horror stories about “stovepiped” networks that don’t share information. Throw in the usual layers of bureaucracy and scores of indifferent employees, and you’ve got a “system” that routinely declares retirees “dead” and cuts off their pension, or keeps sending payments to service members who expired months or years ago. The problems can be fixed, some general will tell Congress, but we need a few hundred million (or billion) to update the system.

Based on our experience, it will probably take an act of Congress (or an Executive Order) to straighten out this mess, and keep it from happening again. Left to its own devices, the bureaucracy may fix Mr. Fox’s problem, but there’s no guarantee that the Army’s computers won’t keep churning out refund letters to other wounded combat vets. Consistent pressure from above is the only thing that will solve this problem, once and for all.

The bad news, of course, is that any permanent “solution” will take at least a couple of years to implement. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and networking the appropriate databases and computer systems will–you guessed it–take many months, a major infusion of tax dollars and the support of a major defense contractor. And lest we forget, the government’s rules for soliciting and awarding major military contracts are even more cumbersome than their rules for personnel administration and compensation.

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