IAVA | October 17, 2018
Read: Thank You For Your Service; Now Pay Up!
Over two years of my life were stolen by DFAS, the Defense Financial and Accounting Services. My case is only one of the thousands out there. DFAS unilaterally levied a large sum of debt against me years after I left the Air Force and did so completely without accountability. Many other veterans face similar or even worse accusations than mine after taking off the uniform. I was only able to resolve the issue after using resources and connections that most people do not have.
I served for six years in the United States Air Force as an intelligence analyst and specialized in cyber-intelligence. While in uniform, I was often assigned to temporary duty and therefore received reimbursements for travel in the performance of my official duties. My last temporary duty assignment was from Lackland AFB in Texas to Fort Gordon in Georgia in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. After that tour of duty was completed, I began my final out-processing and turned in my last travel voucher along with all the receipts. My paperwork was in order, and my commanding officer signed my forms verifying that fact.
Four years after my separation, during my senior year at the University of Texas, I learned my credit score was abysmally low. I pulled up my credit report and found there were five thousand dollars supposedly owed on the government travel credit card I used during my last assignment. For the next three years I was unable to make anyone fix the mistake. Low credit score as a student made life more difficult with things like student loans, rent, and utilities. The situation worsened when I received notification from DFAS stating that they had overcompensated me by over fourteen thousand dollars.
The timing of DFAS could not have been more catastrophic for me. I had recently proposed to my wife, and we were in the process of planning our wedding. I was in the final year at the Seattle University School of Law and applying to take the bar exam. To be allowed to sit for the Washington state bar, I had to explain the outstanding debt during the intensive application process. At that point, I knew very little of what had gone wrong and therefore shared the best explanation I was able to provide. The Washington State Bar Association had concerns about this debt and would not allow me to take the exam before undergoing a Character and Fitness hearing. To have any hope of navigating this successfully, I had to hire a lawyer to shepherd me through the hearing process. Hiring a lawyer able to handle a case in front of the state’s bar association is not cheap. To add insult to injury, I had to sit on the sidelines and watch as my law school classmates went on to begin their careers and start practicing law.
I immediately began working with my lawyer, doing everything I could to work within the system to remedy the situation. When I asked DFAS to produce the financial records, they told me that they would have to reactivate my case, which would incur interest charges to my debt. At the time, my Congressional representative was Adam Smith, a ranking member of the Armed Services Committee. I had to work with my congressman’s office to get any substantive response from DFAS, and even then, it took multiple congressional inquiries over many months for DFAS to conduct an audit and produce the records. Unfortunately, the results from Congressman Smith’s office were incomprehensible to my caseworker – she told me they would be unable help me further. Luckily, I happened to have a classmate with experience in military finances in the Marine Corps before going to law school. My classmate, Miss Hargrave, spent many hours reviewing and interpreting the records from the audit. She explained to the congressional staff that many of the records were missing, and the records I did have were riddled with mistakes. Even with a list of numerous errors uncovered in the DFAS records, Congressman Smith’s office was unable to make any more progress with DFAS on my behalf.
I began to track down the missing records to piece together this train wreck. From my home in the Seattle area, I was unable to find the phone number of the Lackland AFB Finance Office (I later learned that it was intentionally not publicly listed). I decided to visit Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the closest Air Force base to me at that time. I spent hours going from office to office, attempting to find relevant departments that might have access to the databases with the additional records I needed. At every office, I was told either they did not have the records, or they lacked the authorization to release them to me.
As I did not have much official progress, I repeatedly rescheduled my hearing before the WSBA Character and Fitness Board. They eventually ran out of patience and demanded that I either appear for the hearing or withdraw my application. Under the advisement of my lawyer, I chose the latter option since the situation was not yet resolved, and if I did receive an official rejection to take the bar exam, it might have had future ramifications.
Throughout the many months spent trying to get some resolution to this with my credit in tatters, I had to rely on my wife’s credit for everything from tenant applications to car leases. To make matters worse, after we got married, DFAS began confiscating all my wife’s tax returns to repay the alleged debt. With the lack of options with the Washington State Bar, my wife and I moved back to Austin, Texas. I consider Austin my home anyways. Here in Austin, I have connections in the legal and political worlds, and we very purposefully chose to live in Congressman Lloyd Doggett’s district so that his office could take my case. The first couple of inquiries from Congressman Doggett’s office resulted in DFAS simply sending me copies of the same records they had already provided. When it was forcefully pointed out to them that their records were incomplete and filled with mistakes, they responded that it was ultimately my responsibility to maintain the records and that I bore the burden of proof, and that I should bring it up with the Air Force again. I drove down to Lackland AFB and once again went to every office I could think of that might have the records I needed. And once again I came up empty.
Due to the amazing and tenacious work of Doggett’s office, they brought my case to the attention of the Air Force Finance and Banking Division. After reviewing it, they determined that the housing receipts from my last temporary duty assignment were missing and that error was what had created a snowball of accounting mistakes. I called the housing company where I had been stationed in hopes of getting such old receipt records, and the woman on the phone was immediately helpful, much to my shock. Everything else in this process had been extremely difficult, so I expected this would not be easy – surely, records from such a long time ago would be stored in some warehouse if they had not yet been destroyed. She explained that it is their company policy to maintain military receipts forever because this issue is so common.
I submitted these receipts for a second time earlier this year. The Air Force corrected the mistake, determined that they should have paid the outstanding balance on my travel card, and finally realized that they had underpaid me and that I was owed an additional significant lump sum. Most importantly, they issued a formal apology that I was able to submit to the Texas Bar and the various credit rating agencies. My credit rating jumped by over 200 points. And in July of 2018, two years after graduating law school, I was finally allowed to sit for the Texas bar exam.
I am now finally in the process of rebuilding my financial life and career. While waiting for my bar exam results to return, I am interviewing with as many law firms here in Austin as I can and am excited to begin practicing law. Once I start working, my wife and I plan on buying a house and starting a family. While my story has a happy ending, the sad reality is that most veterans lack the resources and connections to successfully fight back against DFAS when claiming an erroneous debt. I was in a significantly advantageous position: no kids, a wife with her own career, and the knowledge that I could lean on my parents and the connections I had curated for help.
Many are not so fortunate. I remember the sobbing of the fellow veteran I overheard one time in line. He was the sole breadwinner for his wife and their three small children and had received a notification from DFAS during his terminal leave stating he had been over-compensated. Because of this, his remaining pay was confiscated, plus he now owed them over six thousand dollars. He broke down crying – he did not have that kind of money, and the loss of this last expected income was going to be financially devastating. I still think about this fellow veteran and his family, hoping they somehow were able to manage with such an unexpected and brutally-timed misfortune.
I want to be a part of the solution to this issue to help prevent my brothers and sisters from having to go through what I did. The molten core of the problem is that DFAS is fundamentally broken. DFAS has never undergone a full audit. In 2012, the Government Accountability Office put out a scathing report which stated that DFAS is unable to track errors or ensure correct payment amounts. What makes this so much more problematic is the fact that DFAS has the power to unilaterally levy a debt, and the veteran bears the burden of proof to indicate otherwise. And even then, the veteran lacks sufficient tools to force DFAS to admit and correct the mistake. In other words, DFAS is extraordinarily error prone with unchecked powers.
DFAS needs to be held accountable. That means undergoing a full audit and then ensuring there are systems in place to prevent both over and underpayments. Their databases are in desperate need of being upgraded. Their power also needs to be checked. If they are going to levy a debt, they should bear the burden of proof especially given their track record. There should be a reasonable statute of limitations so that DFAS cannot wait years to correct an overpayment, by which point the veteran likely no longer possesses the relevant documents.
In the short-term, one of the ways to mitigate the damage is to raise awareness around this issue in the civilian sector, so veterans are not hindered on the mere say-so of DFAS. In my case, for example, the Texas Bar was far more familiar with this issue than the Washington Bar, and that made a significant difference. The housing company maintaining all military receipts was crucial. And maybe the most important of all was the fact that Congressman Doggett’s staff was extraordinarily knowledgeable and determined. But in so many ways I got lucky. Most veterans are not going to be as lucky, and they lack the kind of support structures that I was able to fall back on.
I cannot and will not stand by and do nothing while my brothers and sisters are left behind and hobbled by DFAS. We can, and we must demand that every veteran is fully reintegrated back into civilian life and enabled to serve their communities.