Pen­tagon to pause re­pay­ment ef­forts on Calif. Guard bonuses

De­fense chief says he aims to re­solve claims by July 1

Baltimore Sun - - NATION - By David S. Cloud

WASH­ING­TON — Mov­ing to quell wide­spread crit­i­cism, Sec­re­tary of Def ense Ash Carter on Wed­nes­day or­dered the Pen­tagon to sus­pend ef­forts to claw back en­list­ment bonuses im­prop­erly given to thou­sands of Cal­i­for­nia Na­tional Guard mem­bers dur­ing the height of the Iraq war.

Aides made clear they don’t in­tend to is­sue a blan­ket wavier for tens of mil­lions of dol­lars in ir­reg­u­lar bonuses and other pay­ments given to Cal­i­for­nia Guard sol­diers, how­ever, as some mem­bers of Congress have urged.

Carter said he had or­dered an ex­pe­dited re­view and aimed to re­solve all out­stand­ing claims by July 1.

Carter’s abrupt order to sus­pend the pro­gram fol­lows a Los An­ge­les Times report Satur­day that said the Pen­tagon was de­mand­ing re­pay­ments from about 9,700 Cal­i­for­nia Guard mem­bers who had re­ceived en­list­ment bonuses, stu­dent loans or other pay­ments, mostly be­tween 2006 and 2008.

Sol­diers ar­gued that it was un­fair to re­quire them to re­pay the money — of­ten $15,000 or more per sol­dier — when their only mis­take was to take fi­nan­cial in­cen­tives that re­cruiters of­fered. Many served mul­ti­ple com­bat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and some were badly wounded.

The Times report sparked wide­spread public outrage, es­pe­cially since the Cal­i­for­nia Guard in­sisted it had warned mem­bers of Congress about the prob­lem in 2014. On Tues­day, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama or­dered the Pen­tagon to speed up its re­view of the sol­diers’ com­plaints.

Carter, who was trav­el­ing in Brussels, said in a state­ment that he had or­dered the De­fense Fi­nance and Ac­count­ing Ser­vice, the Pen­tagon agency re­spon­si­ble for col­lect­ing the re­pay­ments, to “sus­pend all ef­forts to col­lect re­im­burse­ments from af­fected Cal­i­for­nia Na­tional Guard mem­bers, ef­fec­tive as soon as it is prac­ti­cal.”

He said the sus­pen­sion would con­tinue “un­til I am sat­is­fied that our process is work­ing ef­fec­tively.”

Carter said he or­dered a team of se­nior De­fense of­fi­cials to assess the sit­u­a­tion and to cre­ate by Jan. 1 “a stream­lined, cen­tral­ized process that en­sures the fair and eq­ui­table treat­ment of our ser­vice mem­bers and the rapid res­o­lu­tion of th­ese cases.”

“Ul­ti­mately, we will pro- Ash Carter says the sus­pen­sion will con­tinue “un­til I am sat­is­fied that our process is work­ing ef­fec­tively.” vide for a process that puts as lit­tle bur­den as pos­si­ble on any sol­dier who re­ceived an im­proper pay­ment through no fault of his or her own,” Carter said. “At the same time, it will re­spect our im­por­tant obli­ga­tion to the tax­payer.”

About 2,000 sol­diers have been told to re­pay their bonuses. Au­dits de­ter­mined they were in­el­i­gi­ble and they may have to re­pay some or all of the money un­less Congress passes leg­is­la­tion to for­give the debts.

The Cal­i­for­nia Guard also has de­manded re­pay­ments from 7,700 other cur­rent or for­mer sol­diers whose bonuses have been found to have pa­per­work er­rors, miss­ing doc­u­men­ta­tion or other prob­lems.

Carter said “hun­dreds of

BREN­DAN SMI­ALOWSKI/GETTY-AFP

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