The U.S. Army sent $400,000 in military paychecks to Lt. Col. Stephen D. McConnell for more than three years despite the fact that neither the Army nor his wife knew where he was much of the time or what he was doing to earn his pay.
In June 2009, less than a month after the Army first started asking questions about his whereabouts and a few days after it suggested to his wife that he turn himself in, Col. McConnell killed himself.
Three weeks later, a criminal investigation began to determine whether he defrauded the government by receiving military pay and benefits to which he was not entitled. In the meantime, the Army is withholding the death benefits usually paid to the surviving spouse until it completes its investigation.
For nearly a year, Kimberly McConnell has been trying to get those benefits for her family. She also wants to know how the Army “lost control” of her husband and what led to his suicide.
“We put everything into the Army,” Mrs. McConnell said, adding that the family’s finances were tied to her husband’s Army career. “I had $40 in cash when they told me he had died.
“My husband spent his entire life committed to the United States Army,” she said. “That commitment extended to me when we married in 1979 and to our two children. He should be honored as the career soldier he was. He, in death, and our family should not be forced to endure this continued shameful display.”
Mrs. McConnell lost track of her husband when he left their Disputanta, Va., home in December 2007 — and received only an occasional text message. A career procurement officer, he was awarded the Bronze Star for “meritorious service” in Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
Army spokesmen declined to comment on the case, citing the pending investigation.
Col. McConnell’s brother, Richard, also a lieutenant colonel in the Army, said an official at Walter Reed Army Medical Center — where Col. Stephen McConnell was last assigned — told him they had “lost track of him.”
“The Army failed to account for a soldier who was physically and mentally injured and wandered off,” said Col. Richard McConnell.
Mrs. McConnell said her husband was being treated at Walter Reed after he dislocated both shoulders in auto and home accidents in 2004. But she said she thinks he also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, an emotional illness.
She said he was paranoid and depressed, and that his psychological problems were exacerbated by watching al Qaeda terrorists crash a commercial airliner into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. The attack took place minutes after he left his Pentagon office for a meeting.
“He would spend days locked in our master bedroom with loaded guns,” she said of the period shortly before he left their home.
Mrs. McConnell said her husband worked in the chemical weapons elimination unit at the Pentagon from March 2005 to September 2005 while reporting to Walter Reed for treatment. In September 2005, she said, the Army told him to report solely to the Warrior Transition Unit at Walter Reed.
She said he stopped reporting to Walter Reed when he did not receive new orders, although the Army continued to pay her husband through direct deposits to an account he maintained and the payments continued up to his death. She said her husband moved out of their home after she tried to get him help from the military.
A retired Army officer who specialized in personnel matters told The Washington Times that Col. McConnell most likely was assigned to a medical-hold company at Walter Reed for treatment. The officer, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak about the case, said that with the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, several thousand soldiers are routinely assigned to the units.
But, he said, systems have been put into place to ensure that the personnel assigned can be accounted for, and if Col. McConnell turned up missing “there was obviously a breakdown in this case.” He also said the accounting system is designed to interface with the Army’s automated finance system.
“If accountability was indeed lost for more than three years, then procedures were not properly followed and CID would and should investigate to determine how this happened — to ensure there was no criminal misconduct to defraud the government and to recommend corrective actions so it does not happen again in the future,” he said.
“Obviously, someone or several failed to follow correct procedures,” he said.
On June 1, 2009, Col. McConnell, 56, shot himself in the head near railroad tracks in Williamsburg, according to a Virginia Department of Health death certificate. Three days earlier, Mrs. McConnell said, she was told by the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command (CID) to arrange for her husband to “turn himself in,” although CID investigators declined to say why.
She said she told CID that her husband would kill himself if he thought the Army was going to arrest him.
A Jan. 27, 2010, letter from CID to Sen. Jim Webb, Virginia Democrat, who inquired about the case after receiving a letter from Col. McConnell’s daughter, Gretchen, said the inquiry focused on allegations of “fraud and larceny of government funds.” The letter said CID was investigating reports that Col. McConnell received $403,301 in pay for which he was not entitled from Dec. 18, 2005, until April 30, 2009.
The letter said neither the McConnell family nor the Human Resources Command that maintains Army personnel records had provided documentation showing he was on active duty at the time of his death. It said the fraud issue could be resolved if such orders could be found.
The Defense Department’s Manpower Data Center, which maintains the Army’s personnel, manpower, training and financial records, lists Col. McConnell as being on “active duty” at least until the day he killed himself.
Col. Richard McConnell said his brother was issued a new military identification card in 2008.
Mrs. McConnell said the Army has not said anything to her about whether it would seek to recover any money it had paid to her husband while they still lived together.
But the question of whether Col. McConnell was on active duty at the time of his death also affects whether his family is entitled to death benefits. At stake is his $100,000 death benefit and $400,000 in life insurance, along with Mrs. McConnell’s widow’s pension, which she estimates would be about $6,000 a month.
Officials at the CID’s public-affairs office, the Army’s Human Resources Command and Walter Reed declined to comment.
Will Jenkins, a spokesman for Mr. Webb, said the senator has asked the Army to expedite its investigations and that Mr. Webb will “continue to closely follow the case until the situation is properly resolved.”
Mrs. McConnell said her husband served nine months as a reservist in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm in 1990 and 1991, and was called back to active duty in 1997. She said he remained in the Army until his death.
Col. Richard McConnell said he was baffled over what happened to his brother.
“I agree with the Army that Steve should have done something, but the Army should have done something, too,” he said. “A lot of people dropped the ball on this, but now we hang it on the family. We ought to take care of this family.”
• Chuck Neubauer can be reached at email@example.com.
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