Members of a Maine Army National Guard unit who recently returned from an overseas deployment will have to return at least $91,000 to the federal government after the military failed to stop paying them at their higher deployment rate upon their return.
The unit came back from a nearly year-long deployment to Africa in January but were not notified until months later that the mobilization station in Texas where they were sent post-deployment had made an error and didn't switch off their mobilization pay once they returned stateside.
For more than 80 members of the Brewer-based unit, that means paying back between $325 and $3,600, according to Maine National Guard documents from March obtained by the Bangor Daily News.
Some members have already paid off their debt, but two members who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution said the situation has made the return home for their unit more difficult, especially as members have come back to an economy that is much more expensive than the one they left.
"This is a total slap in the face," one member said. "None of this is our fault."
An April letter to the unit's members from the Maine National Guard acknowledged as much and said a member of the Guard's fiscal office would attend their drill in May to discuss repayment options.
Soldiers met with a Guard representative in May, who told them they could have the money taken from their pay when they began drills, they could pay it in a lump sum, or they could pay it back in installments, according to the members.
The May meetings, however, didn't come with instructions on how to follow through with those options, members said. They have struggled to communicate with the Guard's financial office since then.
One long-serving member said the unit was not told that the deadline for the lump sum option was June 10 until they were recently informed by leadership, and had to scramble this week to get a cashier's check to pay back more than $1,500.
The Guard is working with soldiers who made individual requests during the May meeting, said Maj. Carl Lamb, a Maine Guard spokesperson. Soldiers would only owe interest if they didn't follow through on their repayment plans.
Lamb said the "multifaceted" overpayment problem affects other state National Guard units and is under investigation. Federal laws and financial regulations require the government to recoup the overpayments, he said, but command recognizes the hardship an overpayment can cause.
"Ultimately, no soldier's return home anywhere should be soured by issues like this, and the Maine National Guard is committed to helping fix it," he said.
The amount soldiers were overpaid depends on a variety of factors, including their start and stop order dates, rank, pay grade and any stipends they might get for family separation or hazardous duty pay, Lamb said.
Overpayment problems have been happening in the Guard for years, including in Iowa and North Carolina. A 2013 Reuters investigation found pay errors occur across all branches of the military thanks to its outdated financial systems. Soldiers can struggle to get errors corrected or figure out how to pay back what they owe, Reuters found.
One Maine Army National Guard member said they had noticed odd deposits in their account after they returned home but did not question them. While they said they will be able to cover the costs, the soldier was worried the situation could cause problems for younger members who might not be as financially stable.
"They keep telling us they messed up, but we're the ones who have to fix it," the member said.
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