Lawmakers Press DoD to Fix Guard Bonus Repayment Problem

Cpl. Christopher Garland, a member of the California National Guard, receives the Army Commendation Medal for valor, and a Combat Medic Badge, at Forward Operating Base Ghazni. (Army Photo: 1st Lt. Antonia Elena Pearse)
Cpl. Christopher Garland, a member of the California National Guard, receives the Army Commendation Medal for valor, and a Combat Medic Badge, at Forward Operating Base Ghazni. (Army Photo: 1st Lt. Antonia Elena Pearse)

U.S. lawmakers on Thursday pressed the Pentagon to find a fix for the thousands of California National Guard members forced to pay back improperly awarded bonuses.

A group of more than 100 members of Congress asked Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Chief of the National Guard Bureau Air Force Gen. Joseph L. Lengyel to work with them to address the controversy.

"We urge you to make this a top priority and work with Congress to find a permanent solution to make service members whole," according to a letter co-signed by Rep. Mark Takano, a Democrat from California, and Adam Smith, a Democrat from Washington, and others.

The lawmakers praised Carter for outlining steps to deal with the problem. But they said the plan -- which calls for speeding up the existing adjudication process and completing the work by July 1, 2017 -- doesn't relieve the burden now weighing on troops and families who received the money in error.

"Those who served in the California National Guard bear no responsibility for the mistakes and misconduct that led to these payments," they wrote. "It is unfair and unacceptable to hold them accountable a decade later."

The letter continues, "Even if those bonuses and benefits offered by the Guard were unauthorized, the Army would be contractually liable for paying the bonuses to the Guard members because they signed reenlistment contracts and agreed to put their lives on the line under a belief that they would receive the bonuses and incentives offered to them for their service and sacrifice."

The letter came a day after Carter ordered a temporary halt to the collection of the bonuses.

The defense chief instructed the Pentagon's Defense Finance and Accounting Service "to suspend all efforts to collect reimbursement from affected California National Guard members, effective as soon as is practical. This suspension will continue until I am satisfied that our process is working effectively," he said in a statement.

Peter Levine, the Pentagon's senior personnel official, said the department won't seek legislation to create a blanket waiver for all cases. "We don’t believe we need legislation," he said. "It would set a bad precedent if we don't recoup" money from service members who abused the system to get bonuses, he said. "There are cases where we need to recoup."

Regardless, a separate letter addressed to House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, among others, also advised to quickly advance legislation that provides "a permanent solution for servicemembers and veterans who received the bonuses in good faith." The letter was signed by 106 congressional members.

Speaking to defense reporters earlier Wednesday in Washington, D.C., Lengyel insisted it is imperative the Guard and the Defense Department together review each case.

"The only blanket role is to do the right thing," he said. "If their hands are clean, and it's just soldiers doing their duty and doing their jobs, then it's not our intent to try and enforce this hardship on them."

Meanwhile, some say the military already has the authority to reimburse troops forced to repay bonus money. In a 2014 case involving a California Guard member, the Boards for Correction of Military Records voted to grant full relief to an applicant wrongfully issued money.

"As a matter of equity, the recoupment action should be rescinded, any monies recouped should be returned to the applicant, and all credit agencies should be notified that the debt was invalid,” the board said in its decision.

"The Board determined that the evidence presented was sufficient to warrant a recommendation for relief," it states. "As a result, the Board recommends that all Department of the Army and Army National Guard records of the individual concerned be corrected by showing the CAARNG rescinded the recoupment action pertaining to his reenlistment bonus and refunding to him any monies collected.”

Since the story broke on Saturday, lawmakers and members of the public have reacted with outrage over the Pentagon's bonus repayment policy. Members of Congress this week have criticized the repayment policy as "boneheaded" and called on the department to forgive the debt.

"It remains my firm belief that even the simple request of asking soldiers to repay money contingent on reenlistment is disgraceful and insulting," Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Republican from California and former Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, wrote in a letter to Carter. "In fact, I find it difficult to believe that either you or your leadership team was aware that such a boneheaded decision was made to demand repayment."

Roughly 10,500 service members, mostly from the California National Guard, improperly received bonuses of as much as $15,000 and other incentives to serve in the ranks a decade ago during the peak of the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, officials have said.

Thousands of troops were later ordered to pay back the money or face such penalties as interest charges and tax liens, according to a story first reported by David Cloud, a reporter for The Los Angeles Times.

"While some soldiers knew or should have known they were ineligible for benefits they were claiming, many others did not," Carter said. "About 2,000 have been asked, in keeping with the law, to repay erroneous payments."

-- Brendan McGarry and Richard Sisk contributed to this report.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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