SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- More than 17,000 California National Guard soldiers won't have to repay more than $190 million in enlistment bonuses and other payments handed out in error between 2004 and 2010, the Pentagon has determined.
The decision closes several years of wrangling over whether soldiers should be forced to pay back the money after an audit revealed the Guard was overpaying bonuses as it faced pressure to hit enlistment goals during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Top California lawmakers in Congress successfully pushed last year for the Pentagon to waive the repayments, unless it could provide evidence a soldier knew or should have known they weren't eligible for the money.
A Pentagon report found the vast majority of the 17,485 soldiers who got bonuses and loan aid totaling more than $190 million won't have to pay it back -- or will be refunded if they already did. The report, given to the U.S. House and Senate Armed Services Committees on July 31, was first reported Friday by the Los Angeles Times.
"I am pleased that an overwhelming majority of the service members affected by the California National Guard's bonus clawback will be able to get their bonuses back," Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff said in a statement. "These enlistment bonuses and other benefits were accepted in good faith and were given in exchange for serving the nation."
Republican Rep. Jeff Denham, who helped craft the legislation requiring the Pentagon evaluation, criticized the U.S. Department of Defense for taking so long to "admit their mistake."
"The men and women who wear the cloth of this nation deserve the security of knowing that the country they swore an oath to protect has their back at the end of their service," Denham told the Times.
The Guard paid out $194.6 million in bonuses and $6.4 million in student loan repayments between 2004 and 2010 to California soldiers, the report found. More than 1,400 soldiers had been asked to pay back the debt when former U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter suspended the recoupment plan in late 2016. An additional 16,000 who were given bonuses during the same time period were included in the Pentagon's review.
The "overwhelming majority" of soldiers given bonuses -- a total of 17,092 -- won't be asked to pay back any money or will receive a refund.
The remaining 393 cases involved soldiers who did not complete their enlistment terms because they were absent without leave, failed to show up for basic training, or had substance abuse problems, the report said. Those soldiers can appeal their cases.