This week saw mainstream acknowledgement of how the Pentagon has been forcing thousands of soldiers to repay reenlistment bonuses, which had wooed them back into service for tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. This began after an audit revealed how the California Guard overpaid during recruitment a decade ago, and the soldiers shouldn’t have qualified for “reenlistment” bonuses at all. Although the enlisting agents were at fault, the soldiers were on the hook for amounts that hovered around $15,000.
After this story spawned public outrage, it somehow got worse. LA Times revealed how Congress probably knew about these tactics for two years and never took action. Also scary? This apparently happened with National Guard members across the nation. So, if any other states should decide to audit, more soldiers would be affected and face debt collection tactics:
“This is a national issue and affects all states,” Andreas Mueller, the chief of federal policy for the California Guard, wrote in an email to the state’s congressional delegation Monday. Attention had focused on California because it was “the only state that audited” bonus payments at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he added.
In the email, Mueller reminded members of Congress that the Guard had informed them about the issue two years ago. Whether members of Congress understood the scope of the problem at the time is unclear.
Well, the overwhelming public response to the story has brought results. On Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced that he’ll suspend “all efforts to collect reimbursement” for these “improperly awarded” bonuses:
“I have ordered the Defense Finance and Accounting Service to suspend all efforts to collect reimbursement from affected California National Guard members, effective as soon as is practical,” Carter said in a statement, adding this suspension will continue until “I am satisfied that our process is working effectively. There is no more important responsibility for the Department of Defense than keeping faith with our people.”
However, Carter did add that some soldiers “knew or should have known” that reenlistment bonuses were something they shouldn’t receive, which seems like a dig, but perhaps he’s simply trying to ward off a recurrence.
There’s no word yet on whether the Pentagon or Congress will do anything about the destroyed credit — $15,000 plus interest and penalties is no joke — of some of these soldiers. Some of them suffered wage garnishments and tax liens while others even remortgaged their homes, all because of what looks like widespread fraud in recruitment practices. Carter did state that there will be “a series of steps to ensure fair treatment,” and he emphasized that this happened because of “in some cases criminal behavior” by the California National Guard.