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US Army admits ‘error’ could force pilots to serve 3 years longer than they thought they’d signed up for

<i>Alex Brandon/AP/FILE</i><br/>Dozens of Army pilots are sounding the alarm on what they say is “gross mismanagement” of their service contracts that could result in them being required to serve three years longer than they’d originally anticipated
Alex Brandon/AP/FILE
Dozens of Army pilots are sounding the alarm on what they say is “gross mismanagement” of their service contracts that could result in them being required to serve three years longer than they’d originally anticipated

By Haley Britzky, CNN

Dozens of Army pilots are sounding the alarm on what they say is “gross mismanagement” of their service contracts that could result in them being required to serve three years longer than they’d originally anticipated.

A problem surrounding how service obligation contracts are enforced could result in hundreds of pilots having to stay in uniform three years longer than they’d expected, possibly disrupting plans for civilian life, including wedding plans, their spouse’s careers and their own civilian employment opportunities.

“I want to start upfront by saying we acknowledge that there were errors in the application of aviation officers’ active-duty service obligation,” the head of Army personnel, Lt. Gen. Douglas Stitt, told reporters during a roundtable on Thursday. “We are fixing those errors and we are in communication with the unit leadership and impacted officers. Our overall goal to correct this issue is to provide predictability and stability for our soldiers while maintaining readiness across our force.”

Maj. Gen. Tom Drew, commander of Army Human Resources Command, told reporters on Thursday that they became aware of the contract issue when a handful of officers submitted routine paperwork to be released from active-duty, only for the Army to tell them they still had three more years of service on their contracts.

After realizing the mistake for those officers, Drew said the Army then did an audit of sorts for other aviation officers, finding the error that is now impacting roughly 600 people.

A letter signed by dozens of aviators and sent to Congress outlining the issue said that they had been “misled” by Human Resources Command, West Point and Reserve Officer’ Training Corps Aviation Branch representatives and career managers in the Army.

“As an Aviation Officer near the end of my understood service obligation, this impacts my family and I the most as I am attempting to make the transition to civilian life,” the letter said. “While I have cherished my time as a member of this incredible Army, I am looking forward to a civilian career that may now be upended due to the gross mismanagement of my Active Duty Service Obligation.”

One active-duty Army pilot told CNN they are facing a “serious financial bind” after having invested thousands into a business that they were preparing to take over after leaving the Army — plans that now are up in the air. The officer said others are now having to handle issues at home, including spouses who were planning career decisions around their service member’s exit from the Army and now are having to readjust, and couples who had planned weddings for when they left service.

“People whose spouses feel like the Army and their service member has lied to them about how long they’d be in the military, which is obviously problematic,” the officer said. “So lots of real-life impacts here on families of soldiers who are now being told yeah, you’re going to PCS, you’re going to deploy, you’re going to go on big training rotations, because we’ve decided to retain you.”

The crux of the issue lies in an understanding of how long Army pilots would be required to serve after opting for a specific contract when they commissioned, the Branch of Choice Active-Duty Service Obligation, or BRADSO. The BRADSO gives officers a leg-up to choose the branch they want the most when commissioning, making it more likely they’ll get the branch of their choice, but also requiring an extra three years of service.

For an officer who commissions out of the US Military Academy at West Point, for example, they would be obligated to serve eight years total — five from West Point, and an additional three from their branch of choice service obligation. But Army pilots have an additional obligation of six years in uniform after they complete flight school.

Pilots explained to CNN that previously, it was understood that their eight years of service obligation from West Point and BRADSO ran concurrently with their six-year obligation from flight school, and that they would serve out whichever of those two obligations ran the longest.

Under the interpretation of the regulations as it stands now, however, Army pilots would serve their three-year obligation from BRADSO after their six years from flight school, which could result in roughly 10 years of service.

Resignation requests denied

When aviators who commissioned around 2015 started submitting their resignation requests, at what they thought was the end of their required commitment, they started getting them denied, with the Army telling them they still owed three more years.

Drew said Thursday that part of the error was because Human Resources Command put the wrong date into the officers’ files, not including the additional three years of service they owed. But Drew also said aviators he has spoken to recently who commissioned before 2015 largely had the understanding that those three years would occur after their flight school obligation.

“It was briefed to them before they signed this contract that as soon as their … flight school portion was up, they had to serve three continuous years to get aviation branch,” Drew said. “That’s both on the ROTC side and then one West Point officer that I spoke to.”

A former aviation officer who commissioned before 2015, however, told CNN that was not their understanding, nor was it the understanding of other officers who commissioned with them. The officer said their Army HR representative, who helps manage officer careers, was the person who told him that “you can’t tack on the three-year BRADSO on top of your flight school contract.”

“I don’t necessarily know or can’t say if my situation was out of the ordinary or if it was just a clerical error or a mistake, because it honestly seemed like everybody had that understanding,” they said. “This was a senior captain who mentioned it to me. He was an Army aviator as well and probably three or four years my senior.”

Drew also said that they did not find a “glaring” breakdown in how the requirements have been applied to officers in the past. They estimate fewer than 20 aviation officers in the past were separated under the previous understanding of the service obligation, and less than 10 of those were voluntarily separated, while the others were separated for things like medical issues or misconduct.

The current Army officer, however, said that is “entirely untrue.”

“I don’t know if they were just trying to downplay the issue or if they actually just don’t know, which is more legitimate that they just really don’t know because this program is quite botched,” the officer said.

But no matter what occurred in the past, the officer told CNN that dozens of aviators are prepared to pursue legal action in court if the Army doesn’t resolve the issue.

Drew emphasized to reporters on Thursday that he is approaching every officer’s contract issue on a case-by-case basis with “compassion and empathy, so it’s not like, ‘Well you said three years, so it’s three years,’ like a prison sentence.”

But the officer who spoke with CNN is not confident.

“One-hundred percent, we believe that the Army is going to have it their way,” they said.

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