Problems with Finance Illustrate the Unraveling of Air Force Squadrons

SOUTHWEST ASIA -- Master Sgt. Shemethia Strange, 386th FM superintendant and paying agent, helps a customer at the finance window.
In the hunt for organizational efficiencies, the Air Force willingly inflicted huge cuts upon its finance support function. The result has been a disaster for airmen and the operational squadrons they comprise.


Whenever possible, I like to share slices of Air Force life at street level. They illustrate — often with vivid accuracy — the larger systemic issues that continue to gnaw at the teamwork around which service has traditionally revolved. It’s this loss of shared identity that is hanging over the service like a cloud these days, portending dark days ahead.

Starting around 2004, when the manpower toll of concurrent wars started to fall due, the Air Force’s flat-footedness became undeniable. It had no plan for its role in the people-intensive, ground-centric, protracted wars that engulfed national defense after 9/11, and it had been burning through manpower margins for the previous dozen years as it remained on continual war footing while the other services generally found time to rest and reset.

To compensate for all of this, the Air Force began a pattern of manipulating the basic formula that had long driven service life. It borrowed people from squadrons to fill unexpected new billets, borrowed even more to stand up and inflate new staffs, and then flat-out struck airmen from squadron rosters to support a massive drawdown designed to free up money for the F-22 and other modernization projects.

Squadron commanders had their experience bases and support staffs gutted. This happened just as they began receiving an endless stream of new administrative bills to pay, and just as their missions grew more intense, dynamic, and enduring.

This sequence of missteps started a slow motion unraveling of the service that continues, officially unacknowledged, to the present day.

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As squadrons go, so goes the Air Force, and they are hurting. Losses in manpower and additions to workload have created a state of perpetual task saturation. This is exacerbated by a relentless tempo, asynchronous deployment routines that long ago outstripped roster depth while sending people running in multiple directions, and harebrained reorganizations that have upended unity of command and unity of purpose at wing level and below in search of an imaginary oasis of new efficiency.

For the better part of its history, the Air Force understood that no matter what else happened, it had to keep squadrons healthy. A new myopia among leaders since the turn of the century had led to abandonment of that principle, with disastrous results.
For the better part of its history, the Air Force understood that no matter what else happened, it had to keep squadrons healthy. A new myopia among leaders since the turn of the century had led to abandonment of that principle, with disastrous results.

One of the most unanimously reviled and obviously injudicious of these efficiency scams is the one that changed how airmen get finance support and advice when they travel on official orders. Traditionally, airmen filled out vouchers to claim TDY or PCS reimbursement based on Joint Federal Travel Regulations. They took those vouchers to the base finance office, asked experts any questions necessary to ensure they’d done paperwork properly, and then left it with technicians for processing. A few days later, they got paid, and in turn paid their travel card balances.

In the push to reduce overhead and find new money for weapons programs, the corporate efficiency experts eventually came calling. They eviscerated base finance offices, creating a massive, centralized clearinghouse in South Dakota to process vouchers submitted via email. Predictably, this “improved” system failed, becoming an engine of misery for all involved.

Base finance offices no longer had the manning to contend with questions. This led to more mistakes and frustrations. As a function of both resource and cultural shifts, these offices stopped interacting constructively with customers (and in fact, many largely dropped the word “customer” from their lexicon). The process became impersonal and uncommunicative. Airmen were forced to use a cumbersome and bug-addled travel software suite to submit vouchers to a “system” rather than a person.

Review of travel documents ceased to be a finance task and instead shifted onto the backs of squadrons themselves. People paid to fly, fix, and guard airplanes became the pro-am financiers of their own missions. After jumping through multiple approval hoops held by operators forced to become pay experts (this is what passes for “oversight” in today’s Air Force), a voucher was sent off to centralized paymasters who would, in theory, process them in a reasonably brief period of time.

But theory and practice diverged dramatically. South Dakota took too long, rejected vouchers for minor cosmetic errors, misapplied the rules, shorted members entitled reimbursement, routinely misplaced submissions, and usually provided zero personal contact, zero explanation, and often zero notice when rejecting a voucher.

The net effect of this self-created morass for the Air Force was a skyrocketing number of late travel card payments and chronic mission disruption. Commanders were stuck constantly working through crises to enable airmen to travel or to get their travel cards paid to remove them from various bureaucratic “bad boy/girl” lists. It became an endless series of glove saves, exacting a productivity toll that easily eclipsed, by orders of magnitude, any efficiency gained.

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Everyone in the field understood the finance debacle to be a result of imprudent and badly implemented changes. But headquarters generals and their toadies responded with little more than managerial scolding and increased pressure on wing commanders to fix the problem without sufficient resources. This simply dialed up the workload for squadrons even more, necessitating new bureaucratic strictures enforced by manpower taken directly out of hide. The whole mess became a huge distraction for an operational community already straining to focus on its core mission.

This is a non-exhaustive but representative rendition of how the Air Force liquidated its financial support function by transferring the workload to squadrons over the past decade without giving those squadrons adequate resources to do the job.

Such maneuvers have become an institutional bad habit. To the extent “savings” are harvestable by reducing manpower, there is always a corresponding cost. That cost is borne by former customers forced to support themselves. The systemically degraded mission focus resulting from each successive iteration of this nonsense is embedding massive, unrecognized risk into operations. Self-interested commanders expertly mask that risk to keep their careers moving forward in a toxic climate unaccepting of difficult truths. The longer risk is concealed, the greater the chance it’ll balloon levels of loss and bloodshed in a future conflict.

Today’s senior officials have become experts at pretending that a lack of sustainability has no mission impact. Their greatest sin, as always, is the kind of dishonesty that today colors the wayward finance gambit. Rather than explicitly confront the notion of financial self-support, adjusting resource models and risk calculations accordingly, the service has maintained a skeletal network of finance offices on its bases. This gives airmen the false impression that they can get counseling, have questions answered, and enjoy baseline assistance with pay issues. The reality is that these offices are ghost towns perpetually saturated with more workload than they can handle.

Predictably, nihilism has followed close on the heels of terminal futility. Finance offices, unable to keep up with demand, have noticeably stopped caring. They don’t return calls. Many have stopped giving out phone numbers altogether. Email response times are slower than snail mail from Antarctica.

As we’d expect to happen, a rift has therefore developed between those who work in finance and those they theoretically support. Ask any operational airman which office s/he would close first for lack of mission value, and finance will often top the list.

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From an airman’s perspective, finance offices are constantly shirking. Communication is lacking. Doors are closed when they’re supposed to be open. PT sessions and squadron functions are held at inappropriate times. Delays in processing cause travel cards to go overdue, casting airmen as miscreants when the delays are actually attributable to processing bottlenecks over which they have no control. No one owns up to anything. Frustrations amplify into anger when airmen can’t prove or explain why they haven’t been paid, unable to jar an answer from a catatonic system. Basically, no one knows what the hell is going on and no one seems to care.

The saving grace in all of this is that relationships between commanders and SNCOs will act as the glue holding it all together. Right?

Not so much.

While it may have been true at some point along the way that commanders and First Sergeants could pick up the phone and get a response from finance, it’s no longer the case. As a commander, I was rarely able to get an answer much quicker than anyone else. To get over the barricades, I had to elevate an issue to the wing level, where a discussion between O-6s or E-9s could at least compel communication, though usually not swift fixes. My operational squadron, with one of the service’s highest TDY rates, was basically at the mercy of a finance system that took too long, communicated too little, and was utterly unaccountable for serious mistakes that inflicted pay trauma on airmen. I watched it degrade focus on the flying mission. I watched senior officials do nothing to address it even when complaints were articulated and supported with evidence.

My squadron wasn’t the only one gripped by this issue. It’s pervasive.

Here’s an email exchange someone shared with me from a couple of years ago. I’ve sanitized the names and units to protect the guilty. Everything I’m hearing tells me that not only does the culture on display here accurately reflect reality, it continues to prevail to the present day and is continually worsening.

This exchange begins, oddly enough, with an invitation by finance officials to complain about finance support.

—–Original Message—–
From: SOMMERS, WILL SMSgt USAF SQ/CEM
To: Wing Top 3 Association
Subject: Invitation to complain

SNCOs,

This month’s Top 3 meeting will have MSgt Bagadonuts (wing comptroller’s office) as a guest speaker. He wants to address, educate, and fix any issues that you or your Airman may have regarding military pay/finance matters.

We need your help to make this happen. Please poll your squadron members to find out their issues/frustrations with the finance office. Then have them forward those problems(or you can do it) via email to Bagadonuts. He will brief explanations/solutions on the three most reported problems that are affecting the masses at our next Top 3 meeting.

The goal is for the Top 3 members to have the knowledge & information needed to take back to their squadrons and arm their first line supervisors with the answers that their Airmen need when dealing with military pay and finance matters. Thank you for your help.

V/r,

SMSgt Will Sommers
President
Wing Top 3 Association

This appeal for complaints seems to be a healthy signal that finance officials on this base are aware that not all is well, care about fixing what is wrong, and are actively looking to collect accounts of frustrations from ill-served customers.

The email was forwarded from a section leader to one of his troops who had experienced problems with finance during a long TDY …

From: MCDONALD, RONALD MSgt USAF Section Chief
To: CROMWELL, THOMAS TSgt
Subject: FW: Invitation to complain

If you find the time, please give me a detailed e-mail regarding your situation. My intent is to go to the meeting and present your situation and frustrations.

V/r

MSgt Ronald McDonald
Section Chief

…And said troop responded thusly…

—–Original Message—–
From: CROMWELL, THOMAS TSgt
To: MCDONALD, RONALD MSgt USAF Section Chief
Subject: RE: Invitation to complain

MSgt McDonald,

Here are my issues:

1. What took so long for my Travel Vouchers to pay out? All 3 of them took more than 25 days to process at a minimum, one took almost 2 whole months – thus the absurdly large GTC balance, thus the squadron’s frustration with me. Would anyone like to hear about a 2 month engine change? No – heads would roll, so why/how does finance get away with 2-month late travel vouchers?

2. Why did my travel vouchers “all of a sudden” pay out when the Chief got involved? Everything seemed to move right along then, so what was the hold up before?

3. If I did something wrong on the travel vouchers (split disbursed wrong, filed wrong etc) why wasnt I notified to fix it and resubmit? There is zero communication from the finance personnel to the end user.

4. The phone system at finance is jacked up – whenever I would call their number I would get endless ringing for the travel pay option.

5. What are the repercussions (if any) for the delays inside their squadron (if truly at fault for the delays)? How is there any proof that they aren’t holding on to vouchers? How do I really know that my voucher got sent to Ellsworth for final approval? That is where a giant grey area is – and there needs to be some line of communication from finance to the travel voucher sender about the status of their voucher even if its as simple as sending off the voucher in an email and CC’ing the original sender. These are all I can think of right now – my brain is kind of fried, but I’m sure that is a great head start to questions to bounce off them. And please, let me know their responses – I’m intrigued.

TSgt Cromwell

Useful feedback in hand, the industrious section leader forwarded his troop’s concerns to the finance expert who had signaled a yearning to hear and work through complaints.

From: MCDONALD, RONALD MSgt USAF Section Chief
To: BAGADONUTS, JOHN F MSgt USAF CPTS/FMF
Subject: FW: Invitation to complain

MSgt B,

I had intended to go to the next Top 3 meeting to get your insight on this issue face to face, but unfortunately I was moved shifts and will not be able to. Could you please read the below e-mail from TSgt Cromwell, one of my troops, and provide your insight on it? I would very much appreciate
any feedback from you regarding his situation. It was frustrating for all, especially TSgt Cromwell, as you’ll be able to see by his e-mail.

Thanks in advance for your time with this issue. If you need any further information, please do not hesitate to contact me.

V/r
//SIGNED//
MSgt Ronald McDonald
Section Chief

And then, he waited for a response. And after a month without a reply, he re-inquired. It seems unnecessary to say much about the absurdity of this delay, which is self-evident. 

—-Original Message—–
From: MCDONALD, RONALD MSgt USAF Section Chief
To: BAGADONUTS, JOHN A MSgt USAF CPTS/FMF
Subject: RE: Invitation to complain

Hey Sir,

Just following on this e-mail I sent you a month ago. Were able to take a look at it and provide feedback?

V/r
//SIGNED//
MSgt Ronald McDonald
Section Chief

After keeping his SNCO colleague and customer waiting for a month and forcing him to follow up hat-in-hand begging for a dialogue, we would expect the erstwhile Bagadonuts to be conciliatory and perhaps even apologetic. He went another way…

—–Original Message—–
From: BAGADONUTS, JOHN A MSgt USAF CPTS/FMF
To: MCDONALD, RONALD MSgt USAF Section Chief
Subject: RE: Invitation to complain

MSgt McDonald,

We answered questions concerning TSgt Cromwell’s accrual vouchers and GTC directly to Chief Soandso. The major issue that we addressed with the Chief was that Cromwell was not split disbursing the amount that he charged on his card. However, we are researching this matter further and will have even more in-depth answers for some of the concerns [highlighted] by TSgt Cromwell below.

With that said, my technicians work in arguably one of the most difficult career fields in the AF today. The sarcastic attitude taken by TSgt Cromwell in his email below is not professional or needed. If he has additional concerns, or would like me to explain to him how the system actually works so he can use that information to his benefit and the benefit of his personnel, please have him contact me directly.

V/r,

//SIGNED//
JOHN F. BAGADONUTS, MSgt, USAF
Financial Services Flight Chief

This electronic transmission may contain FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY (FOUO)
information that must be protected under the Privacy Act of 1974 (see AFI
33-332). Do not release outside of DoD channels without the consent of the
originator’s office. If you received this message in error, please notify
the sender by reply e-mail and delete all copies of message.

Tell us how we are doing:
https://ice.disa.mil/index.cfm?fa=card&service_provider_id=116971&site_id=52

Virtual Finance (questions/answers):
https://www.my.af.mil/gcss-af/USAF/ep/globalTab.do?channelPageId=sA1FBF31D23D21F6B0123ED377B730575

eFinance / PiPS:
https://efinanceworkspace.wpafb.af.mil/GovWarning.aspx

Defense Travel System:
http://www.defensetravel.osd.mil/dts/site/index.jsp

There you have it — a response with pretty much everything. Recalcitrance, appeals to authority and process in lieu of teamwork, avoidance of accountability, false victimhood syndrome, a ludicrous quasi-agreement to continue “researching” issues (never mind it’s already been 30+ days and the whole beef is about processing delays), and childish lashing out at the tone of the troop’s email rather than acknowledging his valid complaints. We even get treated to an ornamental disclaimer and a laundry list of self-help websites, as if every tron of this email is shouting in unison “not here to help.”

This is the tip of a miserable iceberg. It plays out every day, everywhere, demoralizing everyone involved. It’s as though the Air Force set this up as a sick joke to see how far it could push people before they melt down.

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It is often theorized by junior airmen that they can’t get remedies for their issues with finance because the senior officers empowered to do something about it have their nests feathered by dedicated support staffs who prevent them from ever sensing the same issues airmen deal with every day. It’s tough to deny that.

But when it comes to this issue, it might not matter. The Air Force sold away manpower it needed, and those bodies are never coming back. This is the new normal, and the best airmen can hope for is for senior officials to confront and acknowledge the true state of the system, and to knock the finance community back in line with the rest of the team. To the extent the system is irreparably broken, it needn’t be permitted to limp even slower by a failure of commitment between people wearing the same uniform.

Until then, finance will continue to be the “Thunderdome” of daily Air Force life. Two vouchers enter. One gets processed. A bloodthirsty crowd jeers, having long forgotten what was so amusing, but comforted by its enmity and little more.


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