CHARLESTON COUNTY, SC - When military members are stationed around the world, they often take their personal vehicles with them.
In May of this year, a new company took over the responsibility of shipping those vehicles. In just a few months, though, more than 10,000 military members, including some in the Tri-County, say their vehicles arrive late or damaged and they have had to pay out-of-pocket because of it.
Michael Barin was stationed in Grafenwöhr, Germany, for three-and-a-half years. This January he got orders to move back to South Carolina with his wife and three children, but when he arrived, his car wasn't here.
"I tried calling here to the VPC [vehicle processing center]," Barin said. "It would ring and ring and ring and ring and no one would answer. After the first four emails I sent, I finally got one back. They're like 'Your car is in transit.' I know that. I know my car is in transit. I'd like to know where in this transit process it is."
The government previously used a company called American Auto logistics to ship cars for service members, but last year decided to switch to a company called International Auto Logistics, or IAL, which would take over the responsibility in May. The new $305 million contract was supposed to save taxpayers and the government $50 million a year, but TRANSCOM, the U.S. military agency overseeing IAL said the contract wasn't picked just for the savings.
"The contract selection was based on not just a best value but was a performance-based contract," Col. Marty Chapin, who is in charge of a US TRANSCOM team handling vehicle shipments, said.
So far, though, the company, which has one of its vehicle processing centers in Charleston, hasn't been performing according to the conditions of the contract, which requires 98 percent of cars to be delivered on time. An official memo sent to the Sergeant Major of the Army says the company has had "significant delays" and only 30 percent are actually arriving on time. That means more than 10,000 vehicles are late.
"We had planned on a certain date for the car to be there so we could start getting our kids to medical appointments and stuff because they have special needs, and without the second vehicle, we had to wait longer to get their appointments," Barin said
Glenna Boerner is retired now, but was a Sergeant in the army and served for nine years. When she moved back from Germany this year, her car was 42 days late.
"We've never, ever seen anything so unorganized and just no answers," Boerner said. "The most frustrating part was just no answers. There was a point where we were calling like every other day just to get some answers."
Attempts to contact the company were as unsuccessful as Barin's and Boerner's. A call center answered the phone and a representative said they did not have a number for the IAL. All they could do was pass on a message.
"That's the only way that any customers have been able to get in touch with anybody, which it does seem like is quite an influx of people who can't get in touch with them," a call center employee said.
Barin and Boerner aren't the only service members complaining about IAL. Almost 5,000 people are part of a Facebook group to write complaints about IAL. The group has started a petition to revoke the company's contract and has more than 2,000 signatures. The company is also facing a class action lawsuit for $5 million. The attorney on the suit said 300 people have signed onto it.
Boerner had to spend almost $1,000 on a rental car for two months while waiting for her car. Now, Boerner says IAL told her they'll only reimburse her two-thirds of her out of pocket expense.
"They didn't really give us a reason," Boerner said. "They said they were capped out on how much they could reimburse and we hit that cap."
Col. Chapin says Boerner shouldn't have to spend anything.
"A customer, in most cases a service member or their family, should not suffer any financial penalty as a result of a late delivery of a vehicle, so that's the way the contract is designed."
Barin's car arrived two weeks late, and he considers himself lucky.
"I feel for the service members," Barin said. "Some of these people are paying thousands of dollars out of pocket for rental cars and not even getting answers back."
Chapin admits IAL hasn't performed.
"We know that this contract has not gone how the government or any of the concerned parties would have liked it to have," Chapin said.
When asked when IAL would have its issues fixed, Chapin said the problems will likely continue for a while.
"Well the specific answer is there's no specific date in terms of a get-well plan," Chapin said.