Watchdog: Hundreds of U.S. military families missing vehicles after returning from overseas

FORT BELVOIR, Va. (WJLA) – An ABC 7 Watchdog investigation has uncovered that hundreds of military families, who served overseas and used a federal contractor to ship their cars back stateside, are looking for their vehicles. Now, weeks—and in some cases, months—after they were supposed to be delivered, hundreds of cars are missing, and it’s costing you money.

International Auto Logistics got a $305 million contract from the Department of Defense in May. IAL started shipping cars just three months ago, and ABC 7 News discovered that the company has already racked up 500 complaints with the military agency that oversees these moves, hearing from people who are worried they may never see their cars again.

Melanie Buckley has a new home on base at Fort Belvoir to be excited about, but something’s missing, and it’s not just her furniture.

“This is where my car should be parked,” she said, standing in her empty garage.

When Buckley and her Army husband began their move from Germany back to the United States in June, they shipped their Chrysler PT Cruiser using IAL. Their required delivery date, Aug. 4, came and went more than a week ago, but the spot in their driveway still sits empty.

“The kicker was she said, ‘We haven’t lost your car. We just don’t know where it is,’” Melanie Buckley said.

The Buckleys’ car isn’t the only one missing; hundreds of military families have complained to the Army’s Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command. Now, they’re on Facebook by the thousands, joining forces to share their combat stories with IAL. Some say their cars are months overdue, and they’re getting no information.

“Whoever the powers that be, if they knew that this contractor was treating military families with such disrespect, I think they’d be furious,” Buckley said.

After getting different stories from IAL for weeks, Buckley let the Army Inspector General know about her struggle in attempt to get the situation fixed. Hundreds have gone further, signing a petition asking feds to revoke IAL’s contract.

“Show respect to the men and women in uniform,” Buckley said. “Follow through; answer your phones, return emails, give us the truth and find our cars.”

U.S. Transportation Command and the agency that oversees these moves for military families told ABC 7 News they are very concerned. They’ve assembled a team of experts to track down these missing vehicles. They’re working with IAL, which says it took over its contract during the busiest time of year, with a huge volume of cars. Now, IAL has hired extra workers and set up a call center to help families fix their issues.

On Tuesday, ABC 7 News paid a visit to one of International Auto Logistics’ seven processing lots in Odenton, Md. to ask the company to explain what the local holdup is and why people have such a hard time finding their cars that are supposed to already be in that lot. IAL asked ABC 7 News to leave its office and refused to give any answers.

Henry Bickerstaff drove from Ohio to the Maryland lot to send his son’s car on its own tour of duty overseas. He is saying goodbye with no reservations.

“It’s not worth that much,” Bickerstaff said. “I mean, it’s worth something, but if it gets lost, it’s insured.”

Bickerstaff isn’t worried about the vehicle, even though so many other military families are still missing their cars.

I really think this contractor is letting the Army down,” Melanie Buckley said. “I think they’re in over their head and I don’t think they’re fulfilling their contract.”

ABC 7 News got a look at the contract that says IAL is supposed to provide a secure website customers can use to track down where their car is with estimated and actual arrival dates. But on an IAL complaint page on Facebook, many say the site doesn’t work and provides inaccurate information.

The Buckleys’ online listing says their car was shipped before the family ever even dropped it off.

“This company has taken our family’s vehicle, they won’t tell us where it is, and we don’t know when we’re getting it back,” Buckley said.

That’s not what the DOD wants; its contract says the company hired to ship military families’ cars overseas is supposed to hit a 98 percent on-time delivery rate, and get at least a satisfactory rating from customers 95 percent of the time.

ABC 7 News has learned that IAL was chosen to handle military families’ cars because it outbid American Auto Logistics, a company that held the contract for more than a decade. Evaluations of AAL said the company provided “an exceptional level of service to DOD service members and civilians,” calling its service “beyond reproach.” Court records show the US transportation Command’s decision to choose International Auto Logistics over the company that previously held the government contract for more than a decade came down to $38 million dollars in a $1 billion dollar deal.

Virginia Senator Mark Warner is now getting involved, to support military families’ efforts to get their vehicles back.

“For our service members, an overseas move is tough enough,” Sen. Warner said. “They shouldn’t have to also worry about a government contractor losing their family car. I will be looking into this situation and requesting further information from the Pentagon.”

The Army Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command sent ABC 7 News the following statement:

“USTRANSCOM and SDDC are deeply concerned about the challenges military families are experiencing in shipping their personal vehicles. This is a top priority.

Last week, USTRANSCOM and SDDC stood up a team of staff experts to address the most significant challenges our military customers are having on this important quality-of-life issue. The team, which meets twice a day, also includes a representative from the contractor, International Auto Logistics.

The team is focused on streamlining processes and tracking overdue vehicles, beginning with those that have been delayed the longest, and helping close the information gap so service members and their families receive the quality of service they deserve. USTRANSCOM and SDDC will work with IAL to identify process improvements and prioritize with them our recommendations to resolve the issues as quickly as possible.

We take each customer's concerns seriously and thank service members and their families for their patience as we work through challenges.”

International Auto Logistics sent the following statement to ABC 7 News:

"IAL had less than two months to begin their contract that started during the busiest time of the year, leading to unanticipated quantities of vehicle processing requests that tested their new systems. The volume of vehicles IAL has been requested to move in the months of June and July represent the largest volume for those months in the history of the program. To address customer complaints and comments, IAL hired additional employees, opened a new call center, joined a task force with USTRANSCOM and SDDC to monitor improvements and has already begun to fix process issues. Solving these issues and delivering the highest level of customer support is the number one priority for IAL, as they have many military veterans on their staff who have used POV services for their own families. IAL is committed to providing the military personnel they serve not only what they demand but deserve."