U.S. must keep prom­ises to vets

The Star Democrat - - OPINION -

The Pen­tagon has in­flicted un­nec­es­sary fi­nan­cial up­heaval upon thou­sands of Na­tional Guard veter­ans in Cal­i­for­nia and else­where who sac­ri­ficed years of their lives to serve their coun­try in wartime. Con­gress needs to take quick ac­tion to per­ma­nently halt an ag­gres­sive debt col­lec­tion pro­gram aimed at re­coup­ing bonus pay­ments for troops who re-en­listed dur­ing the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Amid grow­ing out­cry from Capi­tol Hill, De­fense Sec­re­tary Ash Carter ac­knowl­edged Wed­nes­day that the debt col­lec­tion pro­gram was “un­ac­cept­able” and or­dered it sus­pended.

A 2010 Sacra­mento Bee re­port first ex­posed ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties in the re-en­list­ment in­cen­tive pro­gram. A Pen­tagon au­dit con­firmed mas­sive over­pay­ments, which fed­eral law re­quires the re­cip­i­ents to re­pay. The in­cen­tive pro­gram came at a time when the mil­i­tary was un­der re­cruit­ment duress while fight­ing two costly and de­bil­i­tat­ing wars.

To avoid los­ing valu­able ex­per­tise and en­cour­age sol­diers to re-en­list, re­cruiters be­gan of­fer­ing sub­stan­tial fi­nan­cial in­cen­tives, but some re­cruiters over­stepped their le­gal lim­its. One re­cruit­ment chief, for­mer Mas­ter Sgt. Toni Jaffe, was sen­tenced to 30 months in prison for mak­ing $15 mil­lion in false claims re­lated to the re-en­list­ment pro­gram.

The Los An­ge­les Times re­ported last week that around 10,000 for­mer Na­tional Guard troops are be­ing re­quired to re­pay bonuses and govern­ment tu­ition pay­ments. Some were forced to take out sec­ond mort­gages on their houses to meet rig­or­ous fed­eral sched­ules. Some had their pay­checks gar­nished. Oth­ers face re­pay­ment sched­ules that ef­fec­tively cut their house­hold in­comes by a quar­ter or more.

Per­haps more to the point, the fi­nan­cial-aid re­cip­i­ents did noth­ing wrong, even though Carter said some of them should have known they didn’t qual­ify for the amounts of money they were given.

The sol­diers agreed to an up-front deal: Stay in ser­vice and re­ceive ex­tra com­pen­sa­tion. They lived up to their end of the bar­gain, which in­cluded serv­ing out re-en­list­ment pe­ri­ods of three to six years each. It wasn’t their fault that the govern­ment didn’t check the le­gal­ity of the prom­ises mil­i­tary re­cruiters were mak­ing.

Cal­i­for­nia wasn’t the only state where such in­cen­tives were be­ing of­fered, so it’s im­por­tant that troops in other states aren’t put through the same or­deal if au­dits re­veal ad­di­tional fi­nan­cial ab­nor­mal­i­ties.

Carter’s de­ci­sion to sus­pend the debt-col­lec­tion pro­gram doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily let the af­fected sol­diers off the hook for good. Can­cel­ing the debt would take leg­is­la­tion from Con­gress; House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., al­ready is sug­gest­ing ways to ad­dress it.

The bot­tom line here is the govern­ment’s trust­wor­thi­ness. You don’t make an agree­ment that re­quires peo­ple to put their lives on the line in ser­vice to their coun­try and then, af­ter they’ve held up their end of the bar­gain, tell them that the deal is off. It doesn’t get any more un­fair than this. The real harm comes to the na­tion’s rep­u­ta­tion if we re­nege on our prom­ises.

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