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Pentagon ordered to stop taking back National Guard signing 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

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U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Wednesday ordered the Pentagon to stop its efforts to collect repayment from members of the California National Guard who had received enlistment bonuses for signing during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“There is no more important responsibility for the Department of Defense than keeping faith with our people,” Carter wrote in a statement on the Defense Department’s website. “That means treating them fairly and equitably, honoring their service and sacrifice, and keeping our word.”

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Here’s more background on the issue from NPR:

Carter’s move comes after thousands of guard members were told they needed to repay large re-enlistment signing bonuses and tuition aid — money that was offered as an incentive to stay in a U.S. military that was fighting two wars.

The Pentagon says thousands of soldiers received re-enlistment money who weren’t eligible for the program — and years after paying out the money, it wants it back. Some veterans have been sending hundreds of dollars a month to repay their bonuses; others have faced wage garnishment, interest accrual and a long appeals process.

U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) was among the members of Congress calling for a halt to the Pentagon program.

In a letter addressed to Adjutant General of the California National Guard David Baldwin on Monday, Schiff wrote that “seeking reimbursement for these funds when they were accepted in good faith imposes a substantial financial hardship on those who have served our nation and their families.”  

Carter said he has asked for a special team to establish a more streamlined approach to resolving service members’ cases, aiming to have something in place by July 2017.

Rep. Shiff  shared his reaction to Secretary Carter's order on Take Two.

Highlights

You sent this letter on Monday; the news came this morning that Defense Secretary Ash Carter is ordering the Pentagon to stop asking members of the National Guard to pay back these bonuses. We saw the news just a little while ago on the wires. Did you know that this was coming?

I did not know it was coming, but you could see the momentum building as this story spread like wildfire. You had, initially, members like myself raising it and you had leadership on both sides of the aisle raising it, then you had the administration responding, the presidential candidates weighing in. I'd never seen a newspaper article generate such a quick reaction. I wish things always worked that fast. It's good news that we put a halt to it. I don't think that's enough because it sounds like the Pentagon is still determined to go forward with the appeals process. It's just going to put a halt on collection efforts for now.

There are still people who have paid this money. The LA Times wrote about a 42-year-old former Army captain and Iraq veteran who says he refinanced his home mortgage to repay his $25 thousand dollars worth of re-enlistment bonuses and another $21 thousand dollars in student loan repayments. What happens to that guy? Does he get the money back?

Well, if I get my way, he'll get his money back with interest. I think this is just horrifying. And you think about what that soldier's view of the military is going to be like for the rest of his life if this is how it's left; you think about the impact that it's going to have on the recruitment of others.

You know what this reminds me of? Years ago, we learned that soldiers and Marines and sailors who were injured and recovering at Walter Reed Hospital were being charged for the food they were being served in the hospital. These were the kind of things that make no sense whatsoever. I don't think anyone would think that they're equitable. Sometimes they carry forward because of the blunt force of regulation that no thought is put into and they just have to be fixed. Here I don't think the fix is very difficult, but of course, we have a Congress where even the simple is difficult.

How's the military going to pay for all of this?

What we're talking about —because it involved potentially 10 thousand people — is a substantial amount of money, but by Pentagon standards this is still a rounding error on the overall Pentagon budget. I don't think this is an issue of the amount of money involved. We did recruit these people, they did serve, so the government got its money worth, it got its value for those bonuses whether they, in fact, had been authorized at the time or not, so the government can forgive that obligation. If it's debt held by the Guard, the Guard can be compensated for it.

Whatever is required can be done. It's as simple a matter as writing it into a bill, if that's even necessary. If the Pentagon says they don't have the authority without congressional action, we will act. If they can take care of it on their own, they should do so.

But, as you mentioned a few moments ago, this had floated to the surface before we were aware of this or Congress was aware of this, there was an attempt to try to claw back re-enlistment bonuses from thousands of soldiers, and it seems like it kind of fell apart in Congress. How do we make sure that that sort of situation doesn't happen again?

This is one of the responsibilities of the Veteran's Committee and the Armed Services Committee to oversee what happened here, and I'm confident they're going to have hearings and figure out 'OK, how did this happen?' Because it doesn't sound like it was restricted to the California Guard.

Click the blue audio player above to hear the full interview.