Program provides little help for soldiers

UNC program burns through $7.3 million with few tangible results

Staff WriterSeptember 25, 2009 

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CORRECTION

A Sept. 25 front-page article on the Citizen Soldier Support Program stated four of the program's eight employees earned more than $100,000. Only three employees do: One employee reduced her work schedule to three-quarter time and earns $77,250.

****** In 2004, U.S. Rep. David Price inserted a $10 million program into the federal budget, sending the money to UNC-Chapel Hill for a new effort to help deployed soldiers of the National Guard and Army Reserves.

Five years later, the Citizen Soldier Support Program has spent $7.3 million, but the money has accomplished little for the people it was supposed to help. One-quarter of the money has gone to the university for overhead, and a large part of the rest has been spent on well-paid consultants, six-figure salaries and travel.

Half of the eight full-time employees are paid more than $100,000 a year, including a deputy director who has been reimbursed $76,000 for food, travel and lodging when she commutes from her home in northern Virginia to North Carolina.

An internal review found that the program produced reams of paperwork but few concrete results.

"The program has produced volumes of documentation, but the vast majority of this documentation is devoted to conceptual verbiage about how the program will function," the review said. "The CSSP is vulnerable to the accusation that it spends too much money on administrative overhead and low-priority, 'nice-to-do' activities and not enough time on activities directly relevant to its mission."

The head of the N.C. National Guard, Major Gen. William Ingram, has worked with the program since its inception. He said he has experienced many meetings, lots of discussion and stacks of paperwork.

"We're feeding you ideas, we're working with you, but we're not seeing any results," Ingram said in an interview. "We're not seeing a whole lot of action; there's a lot of discussion, but....no results."

Ingram said that after four years, the National Guard recently received the first tangible service from the program: a database of North Carolina mental health providers experienced with the military and problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury.

On Thursday, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp told the UNC Board of Trustees that he has ordered the program to shape up.

"The program has serious flaws," Thorp said. "We need the program to show drastic improvement in a short period of time."

16,000 warriors

In 2004, as the U.S. military ramped up operations in Iraq and continued the war in Afghanistan, more and more members of the National Guard and Army Reserves were being mobilized. In all, 16,000 members of the N.C. Guard have been deployed, some of them two or three times.

Price, a Chapel Hill Democrat, saw a need, and he used a controversial method to address it. He inserted an "earmark," an appropriation for a specific project that a member of Congress can include in the budget.

The program was to help soldiers in the North Carolina National Guard and Army Reserves, with the idea that it could serve as a model and eventually be expanded to other states.

Citizen soldiers are scattered around the state in civilian communities. They and their families lack the institutional support and military community available to soldiers stationed at bases such as Camp Lejeune or Fort Bragg.

"The new program aims to better address challenges Guard and Reserve members and their families face both when they are deployed into duty and when they return home," according to an UNC news release from August 2004.

Price said that the program is worthy of federal funding and that he still supports its goals.

"The check isn't just sent out and forgotten about," Price said. "If these funds haven't been utilized in the most effective way, we need to correct it."

Anonymous complaint

The program started in March 2005; the current end date is December 2009, though UNC has asked for a one-year extension but no more money.

In June 2008, Rep. Sue Myrick received an anonymous fax complaining that the program spent millions with nothing to show for it. Myrick forwarded it to Erskine Bowles, president of the UNC system.

One month later, Peter Leousis, who oversees the program, assured Myrick in a letter that the program had accomplished much.

"We have been and will continue to be good stewards of the taxpayers' dollars in accomplishing CSSP's mission," Leousis wrote.

Reached by telephone recently, Leousis said he would like to discuss the program, but he and his staff have been told by his superiors not to talk to reporters.

Scathing review

On Feb. 17, seven months after Leousis assured Myrick all was well, Tony Waldrop, vice chancellor for research and economic development, ordered a committee to review the organization.

The university redacted substantial parts of that review and a related internal audit before release, citing personnel laws. Thorp said the removed sections discuss the actions and job performance of specific employees.

The report listed a host of problems with the program: overpaid employees; employees performing below expectations; an excessive reliance on outside consultants; an unclear chain of command that creates confusion inside and outside the program; few practical results; little or no evaluation; and disproportionate administrative costs.

The review committee said it could neither confirm nor refute the suspicion that "the CSSP may have squandered a substantial portion of its funding on overpaid, under-supervised staffers who spent too much of the time attending to the organization and its shifting priorities and too little time providing real value to groups serving soldiers and their families."

The deputy director for military relations, Susann Kerner-Hoeg, earns a salary of $129,600. Kerner-Hoeg works from her home in northern Virginia, and the program pays for her travel, lodging and meals when she comes to Chapel Hill. The program has spent $76,558 over the past three years for Kerner-Hoeg's flights, rental cars, hotel rooms and meals.

During the same period, the program paid $313,600 to Kent Peterson & Associates of Kansas City; KA. Peterson, a consultant, served as the director of community relations.

It is routine for the university to get a cut of grant money. Academic institutions, which provide administrative support and office space, routinely receive portions of grants for administrative overhead. The figure often runs as high as 46 percent.

Turning it around?

Waldrop, the vice chancellor in charge of the program, said the review and audit have put it on the right footing.

Waldrop said the program can list some accomplishments: the database of mental health providers; one-day training for 2,000 mental health providers on military culture and the after-effects of war-related injuries; and consulting with the Army Reserve's Yellow Ribbon program.

Neil Caudle, an associate vice chancellor who headed the review committee, said the program is still committed to helping soldiers.

"In six months to a year, we'll be in the right place," Caudle said.

joseph.neff@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4516

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