By Andy Pierrotti and Erin Coker
More than 30,000 Texas National Guardsmen and women have been deployed over the past few years to keep us safe at home and abroad. While armed to protect us, a KVUE Defenders investigation uncovered they may not be armed with the best system to track military equipment.
The number of property loss investigations at the Texas National Guard has increased more than 222 percent over the past five years. It includes equipment lost, missing or damaged during deployment and training.
Some of the equipment includes $8,900 radio transmitters, night vision devices that cost $3,000 each, and one unaccounted for $497 handgun the Defenders found in randomly selected investigative reports.
The total loss totals $3.5 million, out of $2.45 billion worth of all equipment maintained by the guard.
Col. Amy Cook, a spokeswoman for the Texas military institution, attributes the spike to several reasons. She says a large part of the increase involves thousands of soldiers returning home from deployments who misplace to damage equipment assigned to them.
"Yes, the turbulence of sending folks overseas and bringing them back does cause more financial liability investigations," said Col. Cook.
Some of that personal equipment includes $500 body armor vests and $336 binoculars the Defenders found unaccounted for in one property loss investigative report.
Col. Cook also credits an improved tracking system that uses electronic cards to identify missing equipment. "So, it makes it easier in the electronic age to track who has what property and if something happens to that property -- lost, damaged, destroyed -- to figure out what happened to it," contends Col. Cook.
The increase also includes old property loss investigations that have been reopened by the guard.
U.S. Representative Lloyd Doggett of Austin says more accountability is needed. "That increase in investigations may suggest some increase in policing to see if taxpayer funds are held accountable, but there are still too many of those that are going unresolved; too much property lost in action, but some of it may have been stolen," said Rep. Doggett.
If a solider is found liable for losing equipment, the guard does require that solider to pay a portion of that cost back to the DOD, but it's usually a fraction of the original cost.
The Department of Defense sets policies on how the Texas National Guard and other military institutions track equipment. For years though, federal auditing agencies say that tracking system needs improvement.
A June, DOD Inspector General's report recently highlighted missing night vision devices within the U.S. Army that showed "Department of Defense contractors did not maintain complete accountability." In 2009, an audit found $2 billion in U.S. military equipment was accidentally shipped off to other countries "that could be used to threaten national security."
"It's a defense department-wide problem. The defense department cannot pass the kind of audit we ask of other government agencies," argued Rep. Doggett.
Potential budget cuts could make it worse. If Congress can't reach a deficit-reduction deal early next year, thousands of soldiers could lose their jobs. What's unknown is whether staff in charge of tracking equipment are included in those cuts.
"It's been one year after another, one part of the Defense Department after another, that while doing truly vital jobs for our national security, have not done an adequate job of assuring accountability," continued Rep. Doggett.
As a member of the House Budget Committee, Rep. Doggett plans to make further inquiries about this issue. Congress has set a deadline for the DOD to put in place policies for it to pass a basic audit in three to four years, just as other agencies already do.