For Okinawa Marine, LQA benefit turns into debtor’s nightmare

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Retired Marine Chris Garcia, seen here with his wife, Natalie, and their 5 children, was promised housing allowance when he was offered a job on Okinawa. After more than 2 years on the job, Garcia has been notified that he was given the benefit in error and that he would be responsible for refunding more than $100,000 in back rent and utilities.
From Stripes.com
Retired Marine Chris Garcia, seen here with his wife, Natalie, and their 5 children, was promised housing allowance when he was offered a job on Okinawa. After more than 2 years on the job, Garcia has been notified that he was given the benefit in error and that he would be responsible for refunding more than $100,000 in back rent and utilities.

For Okinawa Marine, LQA benefit turns into debtor’s nightmare

by: Matthew M. Burke | .
Stars and Stripes | .
published: February 10, 2015

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Christopher Garcia couldn’t figure out why we was being called into the civilian human resources department in Okinawa.

It had been two years since he retired as a Marine gunnery sergeant and took a job as the lead defense travel administrator in the III Marine Expeditionary Force’s disbursing office. The transition had gone so well, his office had been recognized for excellence.

But, it turns out, things were too good to be true.
RELATED: More Stars and Stripes coverage of civilian LQA

Despite being promised a housing allowance when he was offered the job, the HR office was now telling him that the interpretation of the rules had changed and he no longer qualified.

Then, he essentially was handed a bill for more than $100,000.

“Regrettably, the previous determination of your eligibility for [living quarters allowance] was erroneous,” CHRO Director Deborah Summers wrote in a letter handed to Garcia on Jan. 20. “Because you have been erroneously receiving LQA payments, you are required to repay the LQA you have received.”

Garcia was in shock.

Not only was he on the hook for two years’ rent and utilities, but his housing allowance payments would stop immediately. He said it would be nearly impossible to afford his house now, and his family — with five children living at home — had just celebrated Christmas.

“When I see what this is doing to my family … It’s the betrayal of a loyal individual,” Garcia said. “I don’t have the disposable income to just throw down another $8,000 on a move.”

Five other individuals have recently gotten similar notifications, Marine officials said — a replay of the scenario that tormented nearly 700 Defense Department employees in 2013.

Those employees, mostly in Europe, were determined to have been granted LQA in error. Other civilians were lured to positions overseas only to be told that the crucial benefit was being taken away. Army reservists were caught in a similar housing allowance trap.

The Defense Department blamed bureaucratic errors and misinterpretation of regulations, and in nearly every case, it was determined that the workers were not at fault. Yet the burden of resolving the issue fell squarely on their shoulders. At the time, the DOD said it would likely waive the workers’ debt, but first they would have to sign a waiver acknowledging the debt existed. Many were reluctant to do so, saying it would put them on the hook for the money.

In the aftermath, all who have applied for the waiver have had the debts waived. The fight went well into 2014.

As it sought to resolve the issue, the Defense Department ordered an audit of all employees hired locally in Europe and granted a one-year reprieve on the benefit for those found eligible there and at other overseas locations.

Defense Department and U.S. Forces Japan officials declined to say why the issue has come up again, referring questions to the Marine Corps. The Marines said the Navy’s Office of Civilian Human Resources and the Marine Corps Installations Pacific Civilian Human Resources Office have been offering assistance to those affected on a case-by-case basis.

They declined to comment on Garcia’s case.

“We are in communication with Headquarters Marine Corps to seek further assistance in this matter,” a Marine spokesman said in a statement to Stars and Stripes.

Garcia has been told he should apply to have the debt waived once the bill arrives, but he said he sees that as little solace.

Garcia’s odyssey began in June 2012, when the Marines thought they had found a new lead defense travel administrator for the Pacific region. Emails and letters provided to Stars and Stripes, however, indicate officials were dismayed when the top candidate withdrew because of ineligibility for a housing allowance.

The officials called the position “mission critical,” saying it was historically difficult to fill because special skills were needed. Those skills might be found locally — in the retiring Marines who had experience with the Defense Travel System, for example. But regulations state that applicants who are not living in the United States at the time they apply for the job are not eligible for housing allowance without a waiver. The position had been budgeted for a housing allowance and moving expenses from the U.S. if be offered to a stateside hire, the documents say.

Marine officials did not want make the same mistake again. When Garcia was flagged as the next top candidate, according to Marine Corps documents, he would not accept the position without the housing benefit. And officials feared future problems filling the position if the benefit wasn’t offered, the documents say.

In the Marine Corps’ application for a waiver, the benefit was called a “recruitment incentive,” and officials were pleased that they would save the expenses of moving a family from the States because Garcia’s was already on Okinawa.

The waiver was endorsed by the chiefs of staff for the commanding generals of the 3rd Marine Logistics Group and III MEF. It was approved by J.C. Wright, chief of staff for Marine Corps Installations Pacific, in September 2012.

“Mr. Garcia meets the eligibility requirements,” Wright wrote in his letter to the deputy director of MCIPAC civilian human resources. He affirmed it was in “the Marine Corps’ interest” to approve the request.

Garcia, who is from Chicago, claims he even double-checked with those hiring him on his eligibility for the housing allowance because he saw what was happening in Europe. He was assured he qualified.

He got to work soon after, sporting Marine Corps cuff links as he traded his cammies for a shirt and tie. He sunk his teeth into the position, he said. He and his wife Natalie continued to raise their five kids in their Okinawa City home. The position was to run through October 2016.

Now, he has been told that because his case cropped up in a new audit, he doesn’t even qualify for the year of amnesty that many others were given.

With his rent for February unpaid, and his landlord already seeking payment, Garcia said he is close to breaking down. His children are days away from being forced out from their stable environment and possibly away from their school and friends.

This looming upheaval was evident on the faces of his older children as they gathered at the family home last Wednesday evening. The mood was somber as they discussed the path forward. Garcia’s smaller children played nearby, seemingly unaware of what was happening.

It all makes his blood boil.

“How can the DOD continue to treat people like this?” he said, his voice wavering. “All said and done, other than maybe a year and a half, I’ve given almost 26 years to the federal government as an active-duty Marine and as a Marine Corps civilian.”

Veterans’ organizations were sympathetic.

“Changing the rules in the middle of an overseas assignment will not produce any faith in the civilian personnel management system going forward,” Veterans of Foreign Wars spokesman Joe Davis wrote in a statement to Stars and Stripes.

“The VFW along with the overseas combatant commanders back in 2013 strongly supported grandfathering [LQA] payments until the end of current overseas employment contracts. It was and still is the right thing to do for dedicated DOD employees who are now under tremendous mental and financial stress because of a reinterpretation of regulations that also doesn’t benefit the government, which must now eat the added cost of an out-of-cycle move to bring in a replacement who will receive LQA.”

burke.matt@stripes.com