Pen­tagon halts ef­forts to re­coup Guard bonus pay

‘Claw­back’ out­rage prompts re­form vow

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY CARLO MUNOZ

The Pen­tagon has sus­pended “claw­backs,” or forced re­pay­ments of re-en­list­ment bonuses handed out to Cal­i­for­nia Na­tional Guard units, vow­ing to re­vamp the bro­ken mil­i­tary pay sys­tem that forced thou­sands of U.S. ser­vice mem­bers to fork over money granted a decade ago.

De­fense Sec­re­tary Ash­ton Carter an­nounced last Wed­nes­day that the Pen­tagon is sus­pend­ing all ef­forts to re­coup roughly $20 mil­lion in re-en­list­ment bonuses granted to 10,000 Cal­i­for­nia Na­tional Guard mem­bers who agreed to serve mul­ti­ple com­bat tours in the Mid­dle East and South­west Asia.

The move was made in the wake of anger from law­mak­ers of both par­ties on Capi­tol Hill, out­raged that vet­er­ans were forced to hand over bonuses awarded dur­ing some of the blood­i­est years of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Pen­tagon of­fi­cials have al­ready iden­ti­fied 2,000 Guard mem­bers who were granted bonuses to which they were not en­ti­tled, but re­main un­clear on how many of the other 8,000 Guards­men were granted the bonuses rightly.

“While some sol­diers knew or should have known they were in­el­i­gi­ble for ben­e­fits they were claim­ing, many oth­ers did not,” Mr. Carter said in a state­ment.

How­ever Rep. Jeff Miller, Florida Repub­li­can and House Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs Com­mit­tee chair­man, called Mr. Carter’s or­der a half-mea­sure be­cause the is­sue of bonus claw­backs is broader than Cal­i­for­nia and the Pen­tagon’s or­der does noth­ing for the 2,000 who had to pay back their bonuses de­spite hav­ing served and, in many cases, been wounded or killed.

It’s “a weak and ham-handed at­tempt to shift the fo­cus away from the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s shame­ful treat­ment of ser­vice mem­bers and vet­er­ans,” he said.

The blan­ket or­der to all Na­tional Guard units on com­bat bonuses — mer­ited and un­mer­ited alike — was symp­to­matic of the bro­ken mil­i­tary pay process.

The main De­fense Depart­ment au­thor­ity re­spon­si­ble for vet­ting cases of fraud and er­rors in mil­i­tary pay, the de­fense of­fice of hear­ings and ap­peals, has only lim­ited au­thor­ity to grant waivers to ser­vice mem­bers un­fairly ac­cused of re­ceiv­ing bonuses they did not earn.

That sys­tem “has sim­ply moved too slowly and in some cases im­posed un­rea­son­able bur­dens on ser­vice mem­bers,” putting in bu­reau­cratic limbo the 8,000 sol­diers who are fight­ing to prove they earned the bonuses they were paid, Mr. Carter said.

“That is un­ac­cept­able,” he added in the state­ment.

Peter Levine, act­ing un­der­sec­re­tary of de­fense for per­son­nel and readi­ness, has been given the task of re­tool­ing the mil­i­tary pay and com­bat bonus sys­tem, elim­i­nat­ing the bu­reau­cratic red tape stran­gling the sys­tem and cre­at­ing a “one-stop shop” for Guard mem­bers who can prove they earned the bonuses they were granted years ago.

“We will make them whole again from what we have done to them,” Mr. Levine said at the Pen­tagon, adding that the sys­tem will val­i­date ser­vice mem­bers “who were caught up in this through no fault of their own.”

White House press sec­re­tary Josh Earnest said Pres­i­dent Obama is pleased that the Pen­tagon has sus­pended its col­lec­tion ef­forts but said some peo­ple still might need to re­pay bonuses that were paid in er­ror.

“If there was a pay­ment that was made in er­ror, they have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to tax­pay­ers to go and re­cover that money. But our first pri­or­ity, and the over­rid­ing pri­or­ity, should be en­sur­ing that our ser­vice mem­bers are treated fairly,” he said.

That said, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion thinks it is “im­por­tant that peo­ple are not pun­ished un­fairly be­cause of the wrong­do­ing of some other peo­ple,” Mr. Earnest said.

The re­ac­tion from Capi­tol Hill was largely sup­port­ive of the Pen­tagon’s de­ci­sion to sus­pend its col­lec­tion ef­forts on Cal­i­for­nia Guard mem­bers, 32 of whom were killed dur­ing com­bat op­er­a­tions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But sev­eral law­mak­ers and vet­er­ans’ ad­vo­cates doubt the Pen­tagon’s changes will re­sult in per­ma­nent re­forms to the pay and bonus sys­tem.

“It’s mildly en­cour­ag­ing that Sec­re­tary Carter has paused Pen­tagon ef­forts to take money away from vet­er­ans, but his so­lu­tion misses the mark,” said Mark Lu­cas, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Con­cerned Vet­er­ans for Amer­ica.

“Ad­just­ing the [cur­rent] pro­gram with the hope of a res­o­lu­tion … is an in­suf­fi­cient so­lu­tion,” he said in a state­ment.

House Ma­jor­ity Leader Kevin McCarthy, Cal­i­for­nia Repub­li­can, praised the De­fense Depart­ment’s sus­pen­sion of re­pay­ments and vowed to work with the Pen­tagon to make sure its re­view process suc­ceeds.

“Our vet­er­ans have al­ready given more than what they owe to this na­tion, and to­day’s swift ac­tion demon­strates that the [De­fense] Depart­ment agrees,” he said, adding that Congress “must con­tinue to work to pro­vide a long-term leg­isla­tive so­lu­tion so that this never hap­pens again.”

House Mi­nor­ity Leader Nancy Pelosi, Cal­i­for­nia Demo­crat, also urged the Pen­tagon to de­velop sys­temic so­lu­tions to the mil­i­tary pay and com­bat bonus pro­gram to avoid any re­peat of the Na­tional Guard fi­asco.

“We must work to per­ma­nently lift the shadow of th­ese claw­backs and ad­dress the bur­den on those who have al­ready been forced to re­turn bonuses they ac­cepted in good faith,” she said in a state­ment.

Al­though the fun­da­men­tals of the re­vamped mil­i­tary pay and bonus pro­gram will not change, the new sys­tem will take “a process that has taken years to one that will take months,” Mr. Levine said.

Sol­diers will still have to have their ap­peals re­viewed on a case-by-case ba­sis, and the Pen­tagon is not seek­ing au­thor­ity to grant blan­ket waivers for U.S. ser­vice mem­bers, which would re­quire ac­tion from Congress.

But Mr. Levine en­sured that the process would be dif­fer­ent enough to guar­an­tee that ser­vice mem­bers’ ap­peals would not stag­nate, wrapped in de­part­men­tal red tape, and not force depart­ment of­fi­cials to “cre­ate some­thing new out of whole cloth.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Nearly 10,000 Cal­i­for­nia Na­tional Guard sol­diers were or­dered to re­pay huge en­list­ment bonuses a decade after sign­ing up to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Pen­tagon sus­pended “claw­backs,” or forced re­pay­ments and vowed to fix the mil­i­tary pay sys­tem.

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