Politics

Congress members attack policy forcing Iraq, Afghanistan veterans to repay bonuses

File: Soldiers attend their farewell ceremony for about 850 California National Guardsmen from the 1st Battalion, 185th Armor on Aug. 22, 2008 in San Bernardino.
File: Soldiers attend their farewell ceremony for about 850 California National Guardsmen from the 1st Battalion, 185th Armor on Aug. 22, 2008 in San Bernardino.
David McNew/Getty Images

Members of Congress from California are asking the California National Guard to stop telling soldiers to pay back enlistment bonuses used to sign up soldiers during the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars along with other money that may have been been given to them in error.

Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff sent a letter Monday to the adjunct general of the California National Guard, David Baldwin, asking that they hold off from pursuing any of these incentives that were offered to troops that went to serve in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Los Angeles Times reported over the weekend that nearly 10,000 soldiers were ordered to repay enlistment bonuses after audits revealed overpayments by the California National Guard. The Times also reported that the soldiers would be fined interest charges and have their wages garnished if they refused.

Schiff told KPCC that he heard about these actions from the article and almost immediately drafted the letter, asking that the Guard cease the collection efforts. Schiff wrote:

I urge you to publicly suspend debt collection while we work towards a resolution that appropriately recognizes the service of these soldiers, as well as addressing soldiers who have already repaid these debts as well as the underlying issues that allowed overpayments to occur and go undetected for years.

"It was through no fault of their own that they were offered these incentives, and the last thing we should be doing is going after these heroes and trying to collect based on a mistake that was made by the Guard,” he said.  

Schiff said he thinks the problem could be fixed in Congress and that solution will receive bipartisan support. However, they won't be able to take any action until Congress is back in session after the general election. 

Whatever the solution is, Schiff said, "We will find out what the financial remedy is to make sure that these veterans aren’t holding the bag.”

California National Guard spokesman Capt. William Martin said Monday the Guard has been trying to get the word out that an appeals process is available, the Associated Press reported. It could relieve soldiers of having to return bonuses of $15,000 or more.

The California National Guard offered a statement on Facebook Sunday in response to the Times's article. Here's an excerpt: 

The California National Guard does not have the authority to unilaterally waive these debts. However, the California National Guard welcomes any law passed by Congress to waive these debts.

Until that time, our priority is to advocate for our Soldiers through this difficult process.

"I think we should go after those that were responsible, those that knowingly offered things while at the Guard they were not authorized," Schiff said, "but the last thing we want to do is go after the troops that accepted the call of duty."

Martin said that "bad actors" working for the Guard misled soldiers with outsized bonuses, according to the AP. However, he said that those leaders have since been replaced with new ones trying to resolve problems.

Schiff has been joined by other political leaders, including Rep. Loretta Sanchez, who's running for the U.S. Senate, Rep. Ted Lieu, Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Bakersfield Republican. Several of them have also sent letters to the Pentagon and other federal leaders.

The California National Guard is working with members of Congress to reintroduce legislation that would clear the debts, the AP reports. McCarthy says the House will investigate the reports.