Pen­tagon’s bid to re­cover sol­dier bonuses takes fire

Baltimore Sun - - ELECTION 2016 - By David S. Cloud

WASH­ING­TON — Law­mak­ers Sun­day con­demned a Pen­tagon ef­fort to re­coup en­list­ment bonuses im­prop­erly paid to thou­sands of Cal­i­for­nia Na­tional Guard sol­diers a decade ago, say­ing the over­pay­ments were not the sol­diers’ fault and called on the Pen­tagon or Congress to waive their debts.

House Ma­jor­ity Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., pledged a House in­ves­ti­ga­tion, call­ing the Pen­tagon de­mands for re­pay­ment of bonuses from com­bat vet­er­ans “dis­grace­ful.”

McCarthy said the House would de­mand a brief­ing from the Na­tional Guard Bureau, the Pen­tagon agency that over­sees the Cal­i­for­nia branch of the Guard.

The Los An­ge­les Times re­ported on Sun­day that the Pen­tagon was de­mand­ing re­pay­ment of en­list­ment bonuses — which of­ten reached $15,000 or more — from about 9,700 Cal­i­for­nia Guard sol­diers, many of whom served mul­ti­ple com­bat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The Depart­ment of De­fense should waive these re­pay­ments and I will be re­quest­ing a full brief from Army and Na­tional Guard lead­er­ship,” McCarthy said in a state­ment. “The House will in­ves­ti­gate these re­ports to en­sure our sol­diers are fully hon­ored for their ser­vice.”

The bonuses were mostly given out be­tween 2006 and 2008 by Cal­i­for­nia Guard re­cruiters who were un­der pres­sure to help the Pen­tagon fill its ranks for two ma­jor wars.

Sev­eral Cal­i­for­nia Guard of­fi­cials pleaded guilty in 2010 to mak­ing fraud­u­lent bonus pay­ments.

The sol­diers say the Pen­tagon is reneg­ing on 10year-old con­tracts and im­pos­ing se­vere hard­ship on vet­er­ans whose only mis­take was tak­ing money that was of­fered to them.

The Cal­i­for­nia Guard launched the re­pay­ment ef­fort af­ter au­dits of 14,000 sol­diers who re­ceived bonuses de­ter­mined that 9,700 did not qual­ify for all or some of the pay­ments, or that the pa­per­work was miss­ing.

Au­dits of sol­dier records be­gan five years ago and were com­pleted last month. Al­though the prob­lem sur­faced in other states, it was worst in Cal­i­for­nia.

Cal­i­for­nia Guard of­fi­cials say that fed­eral law bars them from wip­ing out the debts, in­sist­ing that only the Pen­tagon can do so and that it may re­quire an act of Congress.

Sol­diers who filed a class ac­tion law­suit seek­ing to block the bonus re­coup­ment said Sun­day they have seen a sharp in­crease in vis­i­tors to Cal­i­for­nia Vet­er­ans for Jus­tice, a Face­book page seek­ing con­tri­bu­tions to help de­fray the costs of the law­suit.

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