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Consumer Watch: Storage nightmare is the result of a temporary assignment, an unexpected extension and a lifetime of possessions lost

Oct. 20, 2011 - 03:49PM   |   Last Updated: Oct. 20, 2011 - 03:49PM  |  
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Timely notice

How do the services contact troops when they’re about to transfer responsibility for payment of nontemporary storage? Defense policy requires the transportation office to notify the service member by certified letter of the impending entitlement expiration 45 days before the first day of the month when the entitlement is due to expire. In addition:
Army: If the registered letter comes back as undeliverable, it is standard policy to contact the unit listed on the service member’s orders and work through the personnel system to locate that member.
Navy: "Due diligence" procedures for locating active-duty service members include contacting the Bureau of Naval Personnel before converting storage to a service member’s expense.
Marine Corps: Personal property offices make extensive efforts to contact Marines before converting any shipments to personal expense, using tools such as the Global Address Listing and Marine Online for email, telephone numbers and mailing addresses. When shipments are determined to be abandoned and efforts to locate the Marine have failed, Marine Corps headquarters’ Logistics Distribution Branch determines final disposition of the storage.
Air Force: No information on service-specific procedures beyond following DoD guidance.

Protect your stuff

Take steps to minimize your chances of a loss such as Cmdr. Wilma Roberts’, says Surface Deployment and Distribution Command’s Daniel Martinez:
• Keep officials apprised of your email address and phone number. Nontemporary storage has not yet been incorporated into the relatively new Defense Personal Property System, so you should contact your local personal property office/transportation office with these updates.
• If your orders change, go to the transportation office at your current location, give officials a copy of your orders, and ask them what you need to do. They will notify the personal property office that initially arranged to put your household goods into storage. Ask to be contacted with confirmation that the originating property office received the details.
• Make sure you provide a good permanent contact address. "We recognize it’s sometimes difficult to reach the service member. We send a certified return receipt letter to that address," Martinez said. "I can’t state enough that contact information is critical — the permanent contact information as well as their email and personal phone."
• While Martinez won’t go as far as to recommend you contact the storage company with new information, it’s something to consider. Before you move, get contact information for the storage facility. If the worst happens and your service branch mistakenly converts your household goods to self-pay, the storage company will be able to let you know that you need to pay the bill.
• Keep an inventory of your possessions. Keep the inventory and appraisals and photos of valuable items in a safe place, and back up any computer files. If you’re moving, carry this inventory with you. You’ll need the inventory not only for filing claims for a loss during a move, but also if you lose possessions during a fire or natural disaster.

While Navy Cmdr. Wilma Roberts was stationed in Okinawa, she was comforted by the knowledge that her china and cabinets, her daughter's ballerina outfit, her photos and all of her other prized possessions were safely stored in a climate-controlled unit under the military's personal property system.

But her property wasn't safe at all, she found, when she returned to Naval Station Great Lakes, Ill., this past summer.

Unbeknownst to Roberts, the personal property office had converted the storage bill to her expense, and when the bill went unpaid, the storage company sold everything she owned.

A local man paid $2,101 at auction for all of her possessions — items she values at more than $60,000 — and sold almost all of it.

The Navy won't say exactly what went wrong, only that "procedures were not followed" and that there was a "breakdown in communication." Roberts is waiting to recoup the value of her property but will get only partial compensation from the Navy. That's because of Defense Department policy triggered — ironically — by the Navy's admitted mistake.

While the Navy has acknowledged that all procedures weren't followed, Roberts' attorney said it's actually the storage company that violated the law — the Servicemembers' Civil Relief Act — by selling a service member's things without a court order.

"If you're in the storage business, you have the responsibility to know that service members' goods are protected by federal law," said Roberts' attorney, John Odom, a recognized expert on the SCRA.

Roberts is pursuing legal action against the storage company, Chips Express Inc. The company did not respond to questions by press time.

Misplaced trust

Roberts left nearly everything she owned — about 8,000 pounds of household goods — in government-paid storage in Wisconsin.

The Navy nurse shipped just 11 boxes of items to Okinawa.

"I remember thinking the whole time, ‘I really miss my stuff, but I'm glad it's not here,'" Roberts said.

Although she had notified the personal property office months in advance that her tour in Okinawa had been extended for a year, the office stopped paying the storage bill without notifying Roberts.

Her possessions were auctioned off for $2,101. The explanation from storage company officials: They were unable to get her contact information from the Navy.

Add to that the fact that a clerk in the Navy personal property office approved the sale, Odom said.

Roberts said an inventory for insurance purposes showed the big-ticket items alone were valued at $60,000 — including china, three china cabinets, full rooms of furniture and leather coats to name just a few.

The cost of the loss

To make matters worse, Roberts said the Navy told her she will only get depreciated value for her household goods.

Scott Ross, a spokesman for Surface Deployment and Distribution Command, the Army agency in charge of the household goods process for all service members, said Roberts' household goods initially were protected for full replacement value, but that coverage no longer applies when the personal property office converts the bill to the service member's expense.

Although her insurance company would probably cover part of the loss, Roberts said she shouldn't have to face potentially higher premiums if she files a claim with her insurance company.

She said she's spent months trying to get more answers from the Navy, to no avail.

"Something needs to change so people's stuff doesn't go AWOL. I can't believe you can let a GS clerk have the power to stop the payments locally," she said.

Missed signals

Roberts' household goods were stored based on the duration of her original orders to Okinawa, from June 2008 to June 2010.

In February 2010, she received orders extending her tour to July 2011. But her entitlement to storage under the original orders expired in June 2010, and the Navy personal property office stopped paying the storage facility in August of that year.

Roberts said that while she was deployed to Kuwait from Okinawa in early 2010, she called Great Lakes personal property officials to let them know she might be extended and to ask what she needed to do. She said she was assured that the extension of storage entitlement would be taken care of.

She followed up with the office once she returned to Okinawa, again making sure officials had her phone number and asking if there was anything else she needed to do.

Yet when she finally got back to Great Lakes this past summer, she said, "I was told my orders expired and the personal property office at Naval Station Great Lakes was not able to get in touch with me."

Roberts said the personal property office and the storage company had a phone number for her that remained in service until she returned from overseas. Even so, she said, "I'm active duty and the Navy can't find me?"

Navy: ‘Unacceptable'

Navy officials admitted they made mistakes and said they are taking steps to prevent this from happening again.

"The breakdown in communication that occurred in this case is very regrettable," said Nannette Davis, spokeswoman for Naval Supply Systems Command's Global Logistics Support. "What happened to [Roberts'] personal property is unacceptable and not in accordance with our own internal policy and procedures."

Davis said the service member is responsible for providing documentation — such as a copy of extended orders — to support continued storage at government expense.

But in 2009, the Navy implemented new "due diligence procedures" for locating active-duty members, including contacting the Bureau of Naval Personnel before converting nontemporary storage to the member's expense.

When all notification efforts have failed, Davis said, the personal property office is authorized to take steps to convert the storage to the member's expense.

Davis said Navy officials are "committed to helping Cmdr. Roberts with the claims process."

They also will conduct training in nontemporary storage procedures for all personal property office personnel "to make every effort to prevent this from happening again."

One last shock

Roberts did get help from one office on base: legal assistance. But the results were chilling.

A Navy attorney helped her track down the man who bought her household goods, and she went to his house.

"When I walked up, he knew who I was because he'd seen my pictures" among her household goods, Roberts said. She said he told her after seeing her photos in uniforms, and other items, that he went back to the storage facility and expressed concern about whether the property should have been sold.

Odom said the man was so convinced that Roberts was dead that his wife set up a small shrine at their sale of Roberts' possessions, with a picture they had found in her boxes, surrounded by candles. Odom said the man was clearly upset when they spoke, describing how helpless he felt when Roberts sat in her car in his driveway for 45 minutes, weeping.

The man did give Roberts a box with a few items, along with her grandmother's mink coat, which he hadn't sold because his wife wanted to keep it.

"They cut out her name, but at least he kept it," Roberts said.

"He said he burned the pictures," Roberts said. "But my birth certificate, Social Security number, and other personal information was in that storage unit. Now, I check my credit reports weekly."

Navy officials have asked Roberts to fill out an itemized claim to get depreciated value for all her items.

"I break down into tears every time I try to fill out a claim," she said.

"And they want me to produce receipts. Where do they think the receipts are?"

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