When Lt. Cmdr. Randy Sowinski sent his retirement package to Navy Personnel Command in Tennessee in September, the reserve intelligence officer was about six months shy of turning 60.
Then April came. He celebrated his birthday, but his pension check never arrived at his Royal Oak, Michigan home.
That’s because his file was still sitting in Millington, the victim of a backlog that had surged to about 500 retirement applications before dwindling to nearly 300 now, Navy officials say.
“How many veterans need this money? I have a job,” Sowinski, a supply chain operations supervisor, told Navy Times. “How many don’t, that were counting on this for rent, food on a table or whatever?”
“I started out in my career in Surface Warfare. When a ship runs aground, or more recently as we have seen crashes into another one, a CO gets booted. That is the way it is. At NPC, their job is to take care of sailors. When they don’t as in here it should be no damned different.”
Millington officials blamed the backlog on a series of unfortunate circumstances they began to notice earlier in the year.
There was a hike in the volume of packets as Baby Boom reservists who hadn’t drilled in two decades began to reach retirement age, a problem that was exacerbated by “a coincidental period of turnover of key personal,” according to Capt. Kevin Boardman, the command’s director for reserve retirement administration.
“We acknowledge the challenges and frustrations our constituents have faced as they wait for their retirement applications to be processed,” he said in a written statement emailed to Navy Times.
Although the Navy has made rapid advances on the seas and ashore with cutting edge technology, Boardman says processing retirement applications remains a “predominately manual and very labor intensive” chore.
Files often lack supporting documents and can be riddled with paperwork errors that need to be fixed before a sailor can start drawing retirement pay.
To slash the glut in unprocessed applications, Boardman said that Navy Personnel Command reallocated workers inside his office, improved file tracking, increased communications with retirees and even activated reservists to help tame the backlog.
Innovative technology is on the way and a "tiered customer service model” to field retirees' questions and concerns also will speed future processing, he said.
But for now Boardman urges reservists to submit their applications nine to 12 months before their effective retirement date.
There currently are 1,662 packages in Boardman’s hopper but the number of past due applications fluctuates daily, officials told Navy Times.
After the Navy completes a package, it’s sent to the Defense Finance and Accounting Service in Indianapolis for final approval. There, DFAS will reimburse all retirees for back wages owed to them by the delays, Boardman added.
The Navy has started sending out notification letters to retiring reservists 10-12 months before their eligibility date, officials said. Those messages provide reservists with their total years of uniformed service and participation points and they direct the veterans to online forms they must complete to get their pensions.
A former officer aboard the frigate McCandless and a veteran of Operation Desert Storm, Sowinski doesn’t like the long processing delays but at least he knows he’s getting paid.
DFAS received his package on July 27 and the agency expects to cut him a check later this month.
“Had my 20 in 2001. Waited 17 years to turn 60 and get a pension. Now I get to wait even more,” the Operation Desert Storm veteran said in an email to Navy Times.
Prine came to Navy Times after stints at the San Diego Union-Tribune and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He served in the Marine Corps and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. His awards include the Joseph Galloway Award for Distinguished Reporting on the military, a first prize from Investigative Reporters & Editors and the Combat Infantryman Badge.