In debt to his country

Iraq veteran gets bill after injury discharge

Tyler McWilliams thought he'd retire from the Army when he enlisted for a six-year commitment as a reservist during his junior year in high school.

He spent the summer break of that year sweating it out in basic training. Four days after receiving his diploma, the 2000 Moffat County High School graduate officially was inducted. He later served as a heavy equipment operator in the 244th Engineer Battalion under Hayden's Staff Sgt. Mark Lawton, who was killed when the convoy he and McWilliams were traveling in was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade north of As Suaydat, Iraq.

McWilliams can still point out the places on his arms and face where shrapnel from that attack is lodged.

McWilliams carries the scars of battle and three years of service in Iraq, but he came away from the experience with something more -- a bill from the Defense Department for more than $3,000 and 30 days to pay it.

"It's a bad deal," McWilliams said. "I got out of the Army, moved on, and six months later, I get this bill and they can't justify what it's for. As far as I'm concerned, they owe me money."

McWilliams' six years of service should have been completed in February 2006. But after smashing his right middle finger in a truck tailgate in Iraq, he was honorably discharged and released from duty June 10, 2004.

Today, McWilliams' finger is permanently knotted, contorted in such a way that he may never be unable to straighten it. He finally decided to put his wallet in his left back pocket because his right finger always seemed to be getting stuck. He finds he can't perform menial tasks such as swinging a hammer. But, his one hope is that his damaged finger won't interfere with flying helicopters. That was McWilliams' initial motivation for joining the Army.

These days, McWilliams is pursuing that dream without the Army's help. He's enrolled in his third semester at the Rangely campus of Colorado Northwestern Community College, in the start of a two-year flying program.

McWilliams' and his high school sweetheart, Megan, married last August, two months after Tyler was discharged.

Although McWilliams never wanted to be released from the Army, he said the move disqualified him from educational assistance through the GI Bill that he was promised. He also said he was underpaid for three years in the Army. McWilliams said he received pay for private status while in Iraq, though his rank was a specialist. It's a difference of about $500 a month, he said.

And, it's probably why the bill from the Army for $3,100 that the couple received in late December "for overpayment" came as such a shock. Because McWilliams is a full-time student, the couple can defer payment until he graduates.

"It just enrages me that he went and served time in Iraq, and they want him to pay them," Megan said. How can you ask that? There's not even a good reason why."

McWilliams said that while in Iraq he complained about the pay discrepancy, though he said it was never cleared up. McWilliams' superior, Lawton, also tried to help straighten out the issue, to no avail.

Roger Still, from the Defense Finance and Accounting Service in Denver, which is responsible for payroll of the military's nearly 6 million active and civilian employees, said the department is converting to an electronic payment system that should help clear up pay-issue problems.

Still said that pay discrepancies in the field aren't always forwarded to the accounting department.

"Sometimes nobody tells us," he said. "There's a lot of human interface. The new system will eliminate a lot of this."

According to the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, 95 percent of reservist troops experienced at least one problem with their active-duty pay. Most of the mistakes included overpayment to soldiers, the GAO reported in a study released in August 2003

In a Jan. 13, 2005, story from the Army News Service, 53,000 soldiers were overpaid this month.

Most of the overpayments were between $200 and $300. Those funds will be drawn back. But, soldiers who were overpaid $500 or more will have those dollars retracted over two paychecks to avoid hardship, the Army News Service reported.

Nayyera Haq, a spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., said McWilliams' case was the first she'd heard of a soldier claiming to be underpaid.

"If it's an endemic trend, then John is definitely concerned about it," Haq said. "John has a priority to get veterans the support and benefits they need."

In the meantime, the McWilliams said they'd sit on their bill and wait until Tyler graduates to deal with it. They've filed a counter-claim with the Army for the three years of underpayment.

The couple wonders whether the Army is confusing their case with others who have been overpaid.

"Here he served in Iraq, lost the function of his finger, and they want him to pay money," Megan said. "That's ridiculous."

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