Pentagon to pause repayment efforts on Calif. Guard bonuses
Defense chief says he aims to resolve claims by July 1
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