August 28, 2006

Army paid some soldiers after they deserted: GAO

By Andrea Shalal-Esa

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. military paid at least 75
Army National Guard and reserve soldiers a total of nearly
$900,000 in the months after they deserted their units, the
Government Accountability Office said.

The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, said its
investigation was limited and probably significantly
understated the amount the Department of Defense paid to
soldiers who had deserted.

It said the problem was not unique to the guard and reserve
units. It noted a November 2002 report by the Army Audit Agency
had found the Army paid more than $6.6 million to 7,544 active
duty soldiers who deserted from October 2000 to February 2002.

GAO said it was hard to get the money back from soldiers
who deserted, and many were never punished since there was no
central database that electronically tracked desertion cases
and matched them against pay records.

Arrest warrants had been issued for 51 of the total 75
soldiers. As of May 2006, only 18 had been caught by civilian
authorities, two had voluntarily surrendered and 31 soldiers
remained at large, GAO said.

Unless the Army addressed the issue it would "remain
vulnerable to soldiers taking advantage of flawed pay and
personnel systems (and) cumbersome processes," it said.

The report was sent to U.S. lawmakers late last month but
released publicly on Monday.

It recommended initiating criminal proceedings and taking
action to recover improper payments in the 75 cases it cited.

Soldiers are officially declared deserters after 30
consecutive days of being "Absent Without Leave" (AWOL).
Keeping unearned military pay is deemed fraud and can be
punished with a jail term of up to 10 years, GAO said.

Army officials say desertion rates spiked for two years
after the war began in Afghanistan, but are at relatively low
levels and have declined steadily since 2002, when they totaled
4,483, out of a total force of 517,000. In 2005, the Army had
2,011 desertions out of a force of 620,000.