In a sordid tale reminiscent of the old Bonus Army scandal of World War I, Defense Secretary Ash Carter this week suspended an effort by the Pentagon to reclaim enlistment bonuses paid to approximately 10,000 California National Guard personnel.
The bonuses were paid out about a decade ago to maintain force levels at the height of the country’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but subsequent investigations uncovered widespread overpayments, fraud and mismanagement by California National Guard officials.
Soldiers who received the money said the Pentagon is reneging on agreements and imposing financial hardships on them.
“First, I have ordered the Defense Finance and Accounting Service to suspend all efforts to collect reimbursements from affected California National Guard members, effective as soon as is practical,” Carter said in a statement released by the Defense Department. “This suspension will continue until I am satisfied that our process is working effectively.”
Carter said he also ordered a senior personnel official to assess the situation and establish, by the beginning of next year, a streamlined, centralized process that ensures fair and equitable treatment of service members. Carter said he wants to have all outstanding cases resolved no later than July 1, 2017.
Carter said some guardsmen knew or should have known they were ineligible for the benefits they were claiming, but many others did not. He said the process for guard members to seek relief from making repayments has dragged on too slowly.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) released a statement on Wednesday: “I am very pleased that the Department of Defense responded to the outcry from Americans across the nation. Our veterans have already given more than what they owe to this nation, and [this week’s] swift action demonstrates that the Department agrees.”
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) said Carter “made the right call.” “While this will help some families sleep a bit easer at night, much more needs to be done, starting with congressional legislation to waive these debts and to provide relief to soldiers who have already repaid some or all of the bonuses they accepted in good faith,” Schiff said. “It should not fall on the shoulders of those who serve our country to pay for the mistakes of others who offered these incentives properly or allowed the error to go undiscovered for so many years.”
Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer (D-California) issued a joint statement saying they plan to introduce legislation, when Congress returns after the election, to address the issue.
“The small number of service members who knew they weren’t supposed to receive bonuses will be exempt from the bill,” they said. “We’re hopeful the Pentagon will resolve this issue on its own, but want to ensure those who wore our nation’s uniform that they won’t be punished for the actions of others.”
Rep. Judy Chu (D-Pasadena), also hailed Carter’s decision.
“But this is only temporary relief, not a permanent one,” Chu said. “As I said yesterday, the service members who acted in good faith should not have to pay for the Pentagon’s mistakes.”
Congressional leaders on both sides of the political aisle had called on Carter to halt the collections.