Some Guard bonus debts re­main

Pen­ta­gon misses dead­line to com­plete ef­fort to re­verse the col­lec­tion of many en­lis­tees’ pay­ments.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By David S. Cloud

WASH­ING­TON — De­spite a last-minute push, the Pen­ta­gon has failed to fully meet a dead­line set by Congress to re­view and mostly re­verse ef­forts to re­cover en­list­ment bonuses for up to 17,500 Cal­i­for­nia Na­tional Guard sol­diers and veter­ans, in­clud­ing some who were wounded in bat­tle.

Pen­ta­gon of­fi­cials re­fused Tues­day to pro­vide a break­down of how many Cal­i­for­nia Guard sol­diers had their debts waived and how many are still fac­ing re­pay­ment de­mands for bonuses that ranged from $15,000 to $80,000.

Of­fi­cials have told law­mak­ers that they have re­solved thou­sands of Cal­i­for­nia Guard cases since Congress set the dead­line last De­cem­ber in an ef­fort to deal with a scan­dal first re­vealed by The Times last year.

But mil­i­tary of­fi­cials have scram­bled to fin­ish pa­per­work for hun­dreds of re­main­ing Cal­i­for­nia Guard sol­diers and veter­ans in re­cent days, in some cases send­ing checks out just be­fore Mon­day’s dead­line.

Re­tired Master Sgt. Bill McLain, who now lives in Las Ve­gas, said he re­ceived a bank trans­fer of $4,500 on Mon­day to re­im­burse him for his pay­ments on the $30,000 that the Cal­i­for­nia Guard in­sisted he owed. He said he had fought the debt for five years.

“It’s dis­heart­en­ing that when they owe you money they’re in no rush, but it’s a dif­fer­ent story when you owe them money,” said McLain, who was wounded dur­ing one of his four com­bat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Com­ple­tion of the re­view was slowed by the need to con­duct a case-by-case re­view — and in some cases to fin­ish lengthy ap­peals by sol­diers still fac­ing de­mands for re­pay­ment of some or all of their bonuses, of­fi­cials said.

“The De­part­ment is near com­plet­ing its re­view of en­list­ment bonuses,” said Laura Ochoa, a Pen­ta­gon spokeswoman. “This dili­gent re­view in co­or­di­na­tion with Congress en­sures we pro­vide the ap­pro­pri­ate so­lu­tions to our ser­vice mem­bers and re­spects our obli­ga­tion to the tax­payer.”

But Rep. Jeff Den­ham (R-Tur­lock), a mem­ber of the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee who spear­headed the push to let most Guard mem­bers keep their

bonuses, crit­i­cized the Pen­ta­gon’s fail­ure to meet the dead­line.

“Our in­ten­tion was for it to be 100% re­solved by now,” Den­ham said in an in­ter­view, not­ing that Pen­ta­gon of­fi­cials had told him they were 98% done. “It’s dis­ap­point­ing to see this has gone all the way to the dead­line and be­yond.”

Den­ham said he was skep­ti­cal that the Pen­ta­gon had aban­doned heavy-handed tac­tics to re­cover money, and that it had waived debts of all those el­i­gi­ble.

“They need to prove to me that this is no longer an is­sue for any­one they con­tacted and ha­rassed,” Den­ham said.

In par­tic­u­lar, he added, he wanted as­sur­ances that the Pen­ta­gon had helped sol­diers con­tact credit agen­cies to cor­rect any ad­verse im­pact on credit scores from the re­coup­ment ef­forts.

“The re­im­burse­ment is ob­vi­ously very, very im­por­tant, but it’s equally im­por­tant to make sure their credit is fixed,” Den­ham said.

The Times re­ported in Oc­to­ber that 9,700 Cal­i­for­nia Guard sol­diers had been or­dered to re­pay large en­list­ment bonuses — and were slapped with in­ter­est charges, wage gar­nish­ments and tax liens if they could not or would not — af­ter au­dits re­vealed wide­spread er­rors by the Cal­i­for­nia Guard at the height of the wars last decade.

Though some bonuses were awarded im­prop­erly, The Times found that many of the af­fected sol­diers had served hon­or­ably and had ful­filled their en­list­ment con­tracts, of­ten in war zones.

They were or­dered to re­pay the money years later, af­ter many had left the mil­i­tary.

Some had been given bonuses to which they were not en­ti­tled. Pen­ta­gon of­fi­cials have said the vast ma­jor­ity had no idea they were in­el­i­gi­ble for the money. But many also were deemed in­el­i­gi­ble be­cause of pa­per­work er­rors or other mis­takes by the mil­i­tary.

The pub­lic out­cry led the Pen­ta­gon to halt the re­coup­ment ef­fort and prompted Congress to pass leg­is­la­tion in De­cem­ber that gave the De­fense De­part­ment un­til the end of July to con­duct a case-by-case re­view of the Cal­i­for­nia Guard bonuses paid from 2004 to 2015.

Pen­ta­gon of­fi­cials said that their re­view would look at 17,500 ser­vice mem­bers, the to­tal num­ber of Cal­i­for­nia Guard mem­bers who re­ceived en­list­ment bonuses or stu­dent loan re­pay­ments.

The Pen­ta­gon is sup­posed to re­port the re­sults of its re­view to the House and Se­nate armed ser­vices com­mit­tees. Pen­ta­gon of­fi­cials and Cal­i­for­nia Guard of­fi­cials said they would not share its con­tents un­til law­mak­ers are briefed.

“We’re not quite there yet,” said Lt. Col. Thomas Keegan, a Cal­i­for­nia Na­tional Guard pub­lic af­fairs of­fi­cer.

Some Cal­i­for­nia Guard mem­bers who had their debts waived said they had given up hope of get­ting help from the Pen­ta­gon.

Christo­pher Van Me­ter, a 42-year-old for­mer Army cap­tain and Iraq vet­eran from Man­teca, Calif., re­fi­nanced his home mort­gage three years ago to re­pay $25,000 in reen­list­ment bonuses and $21,000 in stu­dent loan re­pay­ments that the Pen­ta­gon says he should not have re­ceived.

In July, Van Me­ter said in an in­ter­view, he re­ceived the en­tire $46,000 back from the Pen­ta­gon. He cred­ited Den­ham’s of­fice for help­ing him get the money.

There are signs that Pen­ta­gon of­fi­cials are bend­ing over back­ward to put the scan­dal be­hind them.

Su­san Ha­ley, a Los An­ge­les na­tive and for­mer Cal­i­for­nia Guard master sergeant who de­ployed to Afghanistan in 2008, sent the Pen­ta­gon $650 a month — a quar­ter of her fam­ily’s in­come — to pay down $20,500 in bonuses. In Novem­ber, the Pen­ta­gon said she could stop the pay­ments while the case was un­der re­view.

On Mon­day, she got a let­ter from the Army Board for Cor­rec­tion of Mil­i­tary Records, which has been han­dling the re­views, say­ing her debt had been lifted.

“The ap­pli­cant knew or rea­son­ably should have known that she was in­el­i­gi­ble to re­ceive all of the in­cen­tive pay re­ceived,” the let­ter said. But, it added, “the ev­i­dence pre­sented is suf­fi­cient to war­rant full waiver of re­coup­ment,” rul­ing that Ha­ley should be re­im­bursed for the money she had re­paid. She has not re­ceived the money yet, she said.

Other sol­diers have not been so lucky.

John Bis­chler, a Cal­i­for­nia Guard sergeant first class from River­side, re­ceived a let­ter from the Na­tional Guard Bu­reau, the Pen­ta­gon agency that over­sees the Cal­i­for­nia Guard, in­form­ing him that he still owed $6,000 in stu­dent loan re­pay­ments he got in 2007 while de­ployed in Iraq. He ap­pealed the rul­ing. “It’s not true,” Bis­chler said of the Army’s con­tention that he should have known he was not el­i­gi­ble. “How do you prove what you didn’t know?”

Peter DaSilva For The Times

CAL­I­FOR­NIA NA­TIONAL GUARD vet­eran Christo­pher Van Me­ter, a Man­teca res­i­dent who served in Iraq, had been or­dered to give back $25,000 in reen­list­ment bonuses and $21,000 in stu­dent loans. The Pen­ta­gon re­funded the en­tire $46,000 last month.

Isaac Brekken For The Times

BILL McLAIN, a re­tired Guard master sergeant who now lives in Las Ve­gas, had fought his debt for five years. He fi­nally re­ceived a $4,500 re­fund Mon­day.

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