Pentagon’s bid to recover soldier bonuses takes fire
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.