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A Breach of Faith: The Navy Must Fix the Way it Pays Mobilizing Reservists

in Voices from the Fleet

This article is written by guest author Lieutenant Blake Herzinger, and originally appeared on CDR Salamander’s blog here.

The US Navy Reserve is failing its deploying Sailors by sending them forward into harm’s way with administrative burdens that damage financial standing, negatively impact their families at home, and detract from readiness. These problems begin at the outset of reserve mobilization and continue through to the day upon which reservists are demobilized and sent home and, in some cases, beyond. Intervention is required if the Navy Reserve is to execute its stated vision of providing transparent and seamless administrative systems in support of its deployed force.

Most US Navy Reserve Sailors are familiar with a certain degree of extra administrative burden that is not felt as strongly by active duty Sailors. Reservists must learn the administrative system intimately and be prepared to shoulder responsibility for requirements that would be handled by personnel and pay departments in the fleet. It is a common joke that serving as a Selected Reservist (SELRES, or drilling reservist) is like having a second full time job for which you are paid one weekend a month. Reservists, in my experience, accept that responsibility with good humor and understanding in most situations. 

When a reserve member is mobilized, however, the issues commonly snowball to an unacceptable level beginning on the day they report to the Expeditionary Combat Readiness Center in Norfolk, Virginia. During the first morning, reservists are told that “due to 1’s and 0’s issues” their allowance for lodging is not the US Navy’s official rate for their geographic location. Instead it is a lower total, set as part of the Integrated Lodging Program Pilot (ILPP). Most reservists will have made their lodging reservations months in advance and, due to Norfolk being a fleet concentration area, many will have been forced to obtain Certificates of Non-Availability (an official document certifying that DoD lodging was unavailable and authorizing the sailor to make arrangements elsewhere) and make reservations in non-DoD lodging, oftentimes at a higher rate than otherwise allowable. The gathered Sailors are informed that their CNA’s will not be honored due to incompatibility between the Navy’s travel management system and the new program. In layman’s terms, this means any sailor in lodging above the ILPP limit, even if unable to obtain any other DoD-approved lodging, will personally bear the cost of any overage and will not be reimbursed during the travel claim process. A large number of deployers leave at lunch on the first day to find new lodging. Those that are unsuccessful in finding lodging within a reasonable distance are left with the bill, regardless of their rank.

In the same morning, Sailors are informed that their travel claims (the document detailing all costs incurred by the sailor from the time they leave home until they reach their gaining deployed command) will not be reconciled within the Congressionally-mandated timeline of 30 days. These travel claims include air travel (procured at inordinately high rates via the DoD’s contracted travel service), weeks of lodging, and per diem allowances totaling several thousands of dollars. Most of these costs are incurred on each sailor’s Government Travel Credit Card (GTCC). For those unfamiliar, every member is required to apply for and employ a GTCC for any travel expenses incurred during duty status, and those cards are linked to each member’s personal credit rating. Members are advised that travel claims may take three to six months to be serviced but that the issue is “receiving flag-level attention.” Many members, to avoid late penalties and damage to personal credit, use their personal savings to settle the government’s bill or place the mobilization-related bills on personal credit cards – a direct violation of DoD policy and putting members at risk of disciplinary action. The issue, at best, depletes members’ savings or, at worst, negatively impacts members’ credit ratings, as the navy fails to reimburse Sailors for costs it has directed them to incur without an effective method of repayment. As a currently-deployed reservist, my detachment recently relieved a group of Sailors that had at least one sailor de-mobilizing (going home) after 270 days deployed whose travel claim still had not been reconciled. With three weeks to go until re-entering the civilian sphere, that sailor was still bearing a burden of thousands of dollars without any sign of resolution.

Pay issues, a problem not unfamiliar to both active duty and reserve Sailors, becomes a nightmare for mobilizing reservists. When Sailors are mobilized, they pass through multiple commands via intermediate stops (I-stops) delineated in their mobilization orders. Their Navy Operational Support Centers (NOSC’s) at home release them administratively and the fleet picks them up in a process that begins at ECRC. The administrative personnel at ECRC work hard, but are faced with processing dozens, sometimes over 100, Sailors each week. Each sailor is warned during their first week of mobilization that they will likely experience pay issues. While it is appropriate to warn deployers of this, it’s simply unacceptable and the warning of “pay issues” does not remotely approach an accurate description. More apt would be a warning that Sailors cannot rely on their employer, the US Navy, to compensate them sufficiently to pay their bills for a period of time that may be counted in months. 

This practice of allowing known pay issues to languish would result in immediate dismissal for the parties responsible in any enterprise outside the DoD. For those that would rebut this allegation with the fact that the US Navy will eventually make those Sailors whole via backpay, that point is acknowledged but who pays Sailors’ bills in the interim? I have rented lodging my entire adult life and have yet to encounter the landlord that accepts IOU’s for months on end, nor the utility company that provides power on the promise of reimbursement, nor the grocery store that offers food on credit. Approaching our fifth month of deployment, my small detachment of five has one sailor being paid correctly. In the last pay period, I received $0.30 as my housing allowance for a month. My rent, for an average apartment – admittedly in one of the most expensive cities in the world, is over $3,000 (well-within the allowable limit for the locale). My Sailors come to me with concerns that they will be unable to support their wives at home or pay their mortgages. We’ve been told that the Personnel Support Detachment responsible for our unit is below 50% manning but they’re hiring and training the required staff to get our issues sorted out. If the DoN is paying those employees half of what they agreed to in their contracts, it is no wonder that they lack the necessary manpower to execute the required tasks. The one thing PSD has definitely accounted for are debts, any overages or incorrect allowances have been withdrawn within one pay period. These are not isolated incidents. Other reservists report their final paychecks were held by the Defense Finance and Accounting Service for 100 days beyond their re-deployment dates, exponentially multiplying the stress of re-integration at home. It is not only egregiously wrong, it degrades personal and unit readiness. Members are being plucked from their homes and workplaces and placed into a position of financial instability, draining personal savings and causing insecurity in families. Sailors’ minds are understandably divided between their deployed duties abroad and ensuring their loved ones are not put out into the street at home.


What if I can’t pay my bill because I haven’t received my reimbursement?

– Cardholders are responsible for paying their monthly billing statement in-full, excluding any disputed transactions, by the due date indicated on the statement. Unpaid accounts are considered past due at 30 days beyond the billing date, and delinquent at 60 days beyond the billing date. Cardholders are responsible for payment regardless of the status of their travel reimbursements. If your due date is approaching and you’ve yet to receive reimbursement, please contact your travel approving official immediately.

– Defense Travel Management Office GTCC Frequently Asked Questions

As a starting-out proposition, reserve mobilization should be entirely funded via centrally-billed account (CBA) aligned to the Expeditionary Combat Readiness Center. It is inappropriate to force members to incur expenses via GTCC without a timely expectation of repayment. This issue is not anecdotal, nor confined to one small detachment. It is endemic and at this point has been reduced from a crisis to a planning consideration.

With regards to travel claims, I propose a mobilization stand-down until the timeline for reimbursement can be brought back within the 30 day requirement set forth by Congress. During the stand-down, an impartial third party should be engaged to conduct a thorough review of policies and business rules that allowed this vast backlog of debts to Sailors. While this is an extreme response, perhaps that extremity might offer motivation to self-assess rapidly and institute solutions, rather than simply briefing our deployers that they might not be repaid until after their 9-12 month deployments conclude.

In terms of fixing the pay system, it is past time to modernize. I know all Sailors reading this will be familiar with handwriting checking account information into a poorly-copied, off-center reproduction of the Navy’s electronic funds transfer form. I am also confident that most Sailors reading this have faced the issue of incorrect pay and fixes that take months to effect. Looking at Navy pay programs and websites is akin to taking a guided tour of the internet of the 1990’s. There are effective, modern solutions to paying personnel. Navy leadership need to choose one and implement it, preferably before the private sector jumps forward another generation in technology and leaves us even further behind.

If the language in this article seems impassioned, or perhaps accusatory, I suppose that is the case. The DoD owes better to its Sailors, and especially those it deploys into harm’s way. It is not enough to tell them that flag level officers are aware of their problems when those problems are damaging their personal credit, depleting their savings, and distressing their families. When we talk about personal sacrifice, are we acknowledging that in addition to leaving spouses and children, missing births and first days of school, and doing dangerous jobs in dangerous places, we’re asking Sailors to do those things without being adequately paid? As Claude Berube detailed for War on the Rocks earlier this year, the USNR has been plugging gaps in our force with reservists for the duration of the Global War on Terror, nearly two decades, but we’re still incapable of getting the right paycheck to those Sailors?

The Navy Reserve’s website proudly proclaims “Our Strength is our People…Every Sailor Matters.” The Expeditionary Combat Readiness Center’s motto is “Nauta Primoris…Sailors First.” It is hard to reconcile those proclamations with the accepted standard. I have no doubt that the staff of the ECRC are dedicated to their mission and doing their best, but they are hamstrung by a system that is not optimized to support a deployed reserve force. As a service, we must do right by our reservist deployers. Assume responsibility for the financial outlay of deploying Sailors, stand down mobilizations until Sailors are being reimbursed within the required timeline, and modernize our pay system to let Sailors focus on the jobs they are deployed to execute. To continue to fail in addressing this known issue is not just a readiness issue, but a breach of faith.

Lieutenant Blake Herzinger is an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, deployed to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, whose landlord won’t accept flag level attention in lieu of rent. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent those of his civilian employer, the U.S. Navy, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

La Cosa Nostra in Khakis

in Voices from the Fleet

Editor’s Note: From time to time, we will publish anonymous content from the Fleet, which we believe adds value to the conversation on making the Navy better. We still believe the best way to publicly offer criticism of your own team is to stand proudly and put your name on the line, but we acknowledge how difficult that can be. Our hope is that these authors will shape their ideas based on the feedback they get, and continue the conversation under their own name – here or elsewhere.

I’ve spent my entire career of nearly 20 years engaged with the Chiefs mess. At every turn I’ve seen abuse of subordinates, contempt for authority, and a complete and utter lack of even fundamental leadership skills.  I must acknowledge upfront there are many outstanding Chiefs, however I’d argue they are good leaders despite being Chiefs. Rate and rank don’t make you a leader, who you are and the influence you carry makes you a leader. I’ve spent some time trying to find a way to express how fundamentally broken and toxic the mess is, and I’ve come to conclusion the best example is their most cherished text… the Chief’s Creed. I purpose this analysis of the Chief’s Creed in order to better understand the flaws in the structure of the Chief’s Mess.  There are there three main trends in the creed which underpin the entire document: tradition, obedience and privilege. Fundamentally it reads more like a mafia initiation ritual, than a promotion oath in a modern military organization.

In Canada in 2017 an undercover agent was inducted into the Bonanno crime family, and for the first time a transcript was captured of the ritual.  “The reason why we’re here is from this day forward, you’re gonna be an official member of the Bonanno family, From this guy, this guy, this guy, everybody approved it, so from this day forward, you’re a member of the Bonanno family. Congratulations. You only answer to the Bonanno family.” Remember these words as you read the creed below and remember these folks go out into the woods and bury their E6 and below white covers in the ground during Phase 2. Also remember they differentiate between New Chiefs and “made”, I mean, “genuine” Chiefs. Chiefs make Chiefs, as they say.

Starting with tradition, it is baked into the organization so deeply they put “Sense of Heritage” on their Chief Evaluations.  While this may have some value, in a warfighting organization where our adversaries are constantly moving forward it is dangerous to be so reliant upon “the way things have always been done.”  RDML Grace Hopper is credited with once saying “The most dangerous phrase in the language is, ‘We’ve always done it this way.” While a sense of heritage is critical for understanding the ebb and flow of history when it comes to the Navy, it shouldn’t be a bullet point on an evaluation in a contested organization. This also explains why as a caste they are not willing to embrace new ideas, further complicating progress within the Navy.  The Chiefs mess is all too often the loathed “frozen middle” and their arrogant obstinance is arguably a threat to national security.

Moving on to obedience, they refer to themselves as a “fellowship” multiple times and often refer to themselves as a “brotherhood” or “fraternity”.  One line captures this internal organizational loyalty best “…exclusive fellowship and, as in all fellowships, you have a special responsibility to your comrades, even as they have a special responsibility to you.”  This implies that the bond between Chiefs is greater than the bond with their superiors or juniors. In fact, only one line in the entire creed addresses the rest of the Chain of Command at all, “Their actions and their performance demanded the respect of their seniors as well as their juniors.”  In that line the phrase “as well as their juniors” seems tacked on as an afterthought and more importantly doesn’t even apply to them respecting their subordinates but is used in terms of the rest of the Chain of Command up and down respecting THEM. There is also a sense that Chiefs grant themselves special privileges and authorities while enforcing obedience within the Mess.  “Your new responsibilities and privileges do not appear in print.” “It shall exist only as long as you and your fellow Chiefs maintain these standards.” I would postulate this is why Chiefs have a tendency to cover up their own scandals and take care of one another to the detriment of the rest of Navy and their own Commands. It is clear the Chiefs have a higher loyalty to the Mess than to the rest of the Fleet.

Finally, the most toxic aspect of the Creed are the references to privilege.  In multiple locations they appoint themselves as privileged subject matter experts above all else.  At times referring to this privilege directly in two forms as an “exclusive fellowship” and in internal “special” responsibilities.  I’d ask who enforces this subject matter expertise, and more importantly in a world of warfighting the Navy needs people who can evolve their worldview to rapidly changing threats vice troglodytes and luddites who fall back on “the way things used to be.”  The history behind the term “Goat Locker” further enforces this heritage of privilege. The Chiefs traditionally were responsible for the Ship’s goat, a critical source of sustenance for a sea going vessel. They were granted this privilege by being the “enforcers” for the Officer caste of the Navy.  The concept of privilege has no place in a military organization and erodes true Leadership. Leadership is about serving those under you, ensuring their success. This is why in the Marine Corps the Officers eat last… they don’t have a special mess with special cherished plates, Ice Cream Machines, Fresh Cookies, and quesadillas on deployment.

It is well known up and down the Chain of Command that the Chiefs Mess is a problem and fundamentally broken. I’d argue this entire creed, the different uniforms, concept of entitlement and internal loyalty above all else within the mess sits at the core of the issue.  While this separate caste was required in a pre-industrial world, it is no longer. No other branch of the military has a specially anointed entitled caste of bureaucrats right in the middle of the organization the way in which the Navy does. We are the only branch of the Military to have a special entitled caste of middle managers.   Point blank, the Chiefs mess is an institutional cancer eating operational effectiveness for the benefit of a few self-appointed leaders.

Today, with education being widely available via the internet compounded with the rate of change of technology and threats, they are often no longer the subject matter experts.  To put that in perspective there is an E4 in the Coast Guard with a PHD right now. I’ve personally had lawyers, electrical engineers, and people who are now Vice Presidents at JP Morgan work under me.

Finally, the concepts of “carrot-and-stick” management which are baked into the DNA of the mess, while outstanding for physical style tasks of pulling sails up and rowing… these approaches do not generate the results desired in a modern context and often do harm.  Time and time again this carrot-and-stick approach has been studied and repeatedly has been debunked, in a modern warfighting organization it is becoming less and less valuable. We need leaders and managers who are able to embrace the adjacent possible, vice ignore it due to their own incompetence and cowardice towards change.

I’d argue if you want to fix the mess, you must take away their “special” privileges and get more than a single afterthought reference to their subordinates in their Creed. Your rank or rate doesn’t make you a leader… who you are and your influence upon others makes you a leader. In the Navy a substantial section of the fleet has zero respect for their Chiefs outside of fear of reprisal and punishment.  That isn’t a healthy foundation for any organization or relationship. With our problems manning the fleet, the leadership of the Navy should ask why so many young Sailors walk away early… remember people don’t quit jobs, they quit managers. Risponiamo solo al Mess, SHIPMATES!

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