Updated at 1:45 p.m. PT December 19: I have heard from an AT&T spokesperson, who has offered me the following comment: "We are crediting the family's entire bill." AT&T will be giving me further details. I will update further then.
Updated at 8:47 a.m. PT December 21: AT&T tells me that its Customer Care is now in touch with Pte. Rivera and says that this is a rare and unfortunate occurrence that should have been handled differently.
I cannot imagine too many U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan are currently having a great time.
However, Pfc Jose Rivera has additional troubles with which he has to deal. His wife has just given birth. She is being treated for heart trouble. And AT&T claims he owes $16,000 for his cell phone bill.
His commanding officer at Forward Operating Base Shindand, Afghanistan, Capt. Evan Brainerd, is deeply frustrated by what he describes as AT&T's "unethical, unprofessional and inflexible" attitude.
He took up Rivera's case because that's what commanding officers should do and because English is not Rivera's first language. He says all he is asking AT&T to do is to see a little reason.
The large bill seems to have come about because of a considerable misunderstanding. Before he was posted to Afghanistan in July, Rivera spoke with AT&T, who, he says, told him that for an additional $4.95 a month he could make international calls to his wife.
What Rivera was not told, he says, is that AT&T would charge him $5 a minute for every call and around 50 cents for every text.
Brainerd agrees that Rivera was naive. "While he should have realized that $4.95 a month was probably too good to be true, he is a young soldier with minimal experience with phone plans or overseas travel," Brainerd said.
However, as the phone bill grew, no one at AT&T allegedly contacted Rivera to advise him of the vastly escalating charges.
This seems to mirror a story from Massachusetts earlier this year in which an $18,000 bill was rung up when a Verizon promotional period expired and the customers were allegedly not informed.
In Rivera's case, the minute he and his wife received a bill for $9,000, they canceled their AT&T plan.
However, as Brainerd relates it: "Despite being put on hold for sometimes two hours at a time, they were unable to get any kind of explanation or answers from AT&T. At one point, AT&T's automated customer service sent a vague e-mail that said 'the problem had been resolved.'"
Resolution has many definitions. For, by the end of September, the bill had risen to $16,000, and it's mounting. An additional $200-300 a month is being added in interest charges.
Sgt. Malcolm McCallum, Rivera's immediate supervisor, has also attempted to intercede with AT&T. He says he has spent hours on the phone with them, mostly, he says, on hold.
Brainerd said: "We have initiated multiple formal complaints with AT&T, none of which have gotten any attention. One request to lower the bill to $9,000, still a huge sum for a young PFC in the Army, was denied without any response or explanation."
Brainerd is appalled that AT&T does not appear to have a warning system when accounts behave as Rivera's did. He wonders not only why warnings weren't sent, but why the account wasn't frozen.
He added in a letter to AT&T: "I have been disgusted by the way our soldiers have been treated, and largely ignored by AT&T's customer service throughout our efforts to resolve this problem. I am certainly not claiming that our soldier, PFC Rivera, is blameless and should not pay to a certain extent for his phone usage. However, $16,000 (every penny that this soldier and his family can hope to save during the course of this 1 year deployment) is a gross injustice."
Brainerd contacted me in the hope of spurring AT&T to some compromise, or at least some positive action. I have contacted AT&T and will update, should I hear from the company.
Somehow, somewhere, the system seems to have broken down. Just as in the Verizon case, there is surely little benefit to AT&T in simply watching a bill escalate beyond the imagination of a reasonable man on the train. In addition, AT&T does pride itself on its support for U.S. troops, so one hopes that a little seasonal goodwill might prevail.
In the meantime, Brainerd has just completed his design of the east side airfield base at Shindand, which has been constructed with the help of local Afghans from the ground up. He worries there are more young soldiers posted abroad who are experiencing similar problems with their cell phone bills.
He firmly believes that, in the case of Rivera, "AT&T should have communicated fully and honestly to a deploying soldier about his options, costs and benefits."
One can only hope that this difficult situation is soon resolved as sensibly as it can be. And I'm not just talking about the war in Afghanistan.