Defense Secretary Ash Carter vowed to resolve Pentagon demands for soldiers to repay enlistment bonuses as the House Oversight Committee announced an investigation into the repayment demands and House Speaker Paul Ryan called for the Pentagon to suspend the efforts.
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has told the Defense Department to expedite its review of nearly 10,000 California National Guard soldiers who have been ordered to repay enlistment bonuses improperly given a decade ago, but he is not backing growing calls for Congress to waive the debts, the White House said Tuesday.
The comments by White House spokesman Josh Earnest suggest the administration is running into legal and policy roadblocks as it struggles to handle a public relations headache for the Pentagon, the National Guard and members of Congress who were caught off guard by the scope of the problem.
Appeals filed by some solders to waive repayment of the bonuses, which frequently exceeded $15,000 per soldier, have “dragged on for too long,” Earnest told reporters in Beverly Hills, Calif., while Obama attended a fundraiser for Senate Democrats.
“We’re not going to nickel and dime them when they get back, and we’re not going to hold service members responsible unfairly for unethical conduct or fraud perpetrated by someone else,” Earnest said.
But he said the president is not yet backing bipartisan calls in Congress to fully forgive the overpayments, which recruiters awarded to meet their enlistment quotas, and are estimated to total about $70 million.
“I don’t think he’s prepared to go that far at this point,” Earnest said, adding that “it might not be necessary to ensure fairness.”
“His first priority is making sure that our men and women in uniform who signed up to fight for our safety overseas are treated fairly when they come home. When we make a promise to our men and women in the military, we need to keep it.”
The White House response came after a Los Angeles Times report Saturday said the Pentagon was demanding repayment of enlistment bonuses given to about 9,700 soldiers between 2007 to 2009 as the Pentagon was scrambling to fill its ranks. Many served multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Tuesday that the repayment program “has got its complexities to it,” but the Pentagon is “going to look into it and resolve it.”
“Anybody who volunteers to serve in the armed forces of the United States deserves our gratitude and respect, period,” Carter told reporters in Paris on the sidelines of a meeting of counter-Islamic State coalition countries.
Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work, the 2nd ranking official at the Defense Department, convened a senior-level meeting at the Pentagon early Tuesday to examine the repayments, officials said.
The Defense Department is looking at ways appeals “can be expedited” for soldiers “on an individual basis,” but it cannot issue blanket forgiveness of the debts, said Laura Ochoa, a Pentagon spokesperson.
That may require action by Congress, which engaged in finger pointing Tuesday.
Members of the California delegation blamed California Guard officials in Sacramento for not alerting them to the scale of the problem in 2014 when the GOP-led House considered — but did not pass — a provision that would have allowed the defense secretary to waive the repayments.
But California Guard officials insisted they had informed California lawmakers about the scale of the debts in 2014, telling them in a list of legislative priorities that “thousands of soldiers have inadvertently incurred debt, through no fault of their own because of faulty Army recruiting or accounting practices individuals.”
The California Guard also sent members of Congress a draft provision to be included in the 2015 defense authorization bill to allow debt waivers for the affected soldiers.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter, center right, said Tuesday in Paris that the Pentagon will fix the repayment program.