California lawmakers from both sides of the aisle piled on the Pentagon after reports it is forcing service members to repay enlistment bonuses improperly paid to thousands of National Guard soldiers a decade ago.
The Defense Department ordered as many as 10,500 former National Guardsmen from California to pay back enlistment bonuses totaling as much as $20 million, or $15,000, according to The Los Angeles Times. The bonuses were paid to entice more people to enlist during the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a 2013 Inspector General's report deemed some excessive.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy called the Pentagon demands “disgraceful." McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, said the House will demand answers from the National Guard Bureau, the Pentagon agency that oversees the California branch of the Guard.
McCarthy was joined in outrage by fellow Golden State Republican congressmen Darrell Issa and Duncan Hunter, and Mark Takano, a Democrat.
"I find it hard to believe either you or your leadership team was aware that such a boneheaded decision was made to demand repayment," Hunter wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter in which he asked Carter to put his weight behind a quick remedy.
Takano called it "ridiculous," and said Congress is prepared to act.
"These service members — many of whom were sent into combat — are now being forced to make difficult and painful decisions to pay back thousands of dollars they never knew they owed,” said Takano said, a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. “The solution to this ridiculous situation is an act of Congress.”
Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said those who have been told to repay their bonuses can appeal the order.
“Soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who volunteer to serve this country deserve our gratitude, respect, and the full support of the Department of Defense," Davis said.
“We have the authority to waive individual repayments on [a] one-by-one basis," added Davis. “Individuals have to apply. There is not currently the authority to waive these things writ large.”
Iraq veteran and former Army Capt. Christopher Van Meter, 42, was ordered to repay a $25,000 reenlistment bonus the Pentagon said he was ineligible to receive. He was also asked to repay $21,000 in student loan repayments.
Van Meter told the LA Times that rather than fight the Army he paid back the money after refinancing his home.
“These bonuses were used to keep people in,” Van Meter said. “People like me just got screwed.”
The Times reported that 48-year-old Army Sgt. Robert Richmond, who suffered permanent injuries in an Iraq roadside bomb attack, is refusing to repay his $15,000 cash bonus. The Army contends he was ineligible to receive the bonus in 2006 because he had already served 20 years in the Army.
“I signed a contract that I literally risked my life to fulfill,” Richmond told the paper. “We want somebody in the government, anybody, to say this is wrong and we’ll stop going after his money.”
Investigations determined that fraud and mismanagement due to poor oversight contributed to the California Guard bonus overpayments, according to the Times.
California Guard officials conceded to the paper that taking back the money from military veterans is distasteful.
“At the end of the day, the soldiers ended up paying the largest price,” Maj. Gen. Matthew Beevers, deputy commander of the California Guard, said. “We’d be more than happy to absolve these people of their debts. We just can’t do it. We’d be breaking the law.”
Some guardsmen face even more serious punishment. Eight current or former members of the California National Guard were indicted in 2014 on federal charges for fraudulently obtaining recruiting referral bonuses, according to The Associated Press.
Military.com reported that one former service member was enticed by a $10,000 bonus to leave the Reserves and join the California National Guard as a military police member for a deployment to Iraq in 2009.
"I served two years in Iraq and then came home in 2011 to find out the CA ARNG did not have the correct paperwork and I was required to pay back the bonus," the individual wrote to Military.com's Paycheck Chronicles blog in 2014.
Issa said the effort to recoup bonuses from men and women who wentinto harm’s way to serve their country is “unconscionable.”
"The recent report regarding reenlistment bonuses being clawed back are extremely troubling,” Issa said. “It is unconscionable that the responsibility for paying for bureaucratic malfeasance and corruption over a decade ago is being laid at the feet of the heroes who put themselves in harm's way to keep our nation safe. The Department of Defense should forgive these debts immediately."
Other parts of the Defense Department have mismanaged similar bonus programs.
Earlier this year, the Pentagon's bomb squad team was saddled with debt due to an accounting error. One member of the team committed suicide. The department agreed to forgive the debt after Military.com and The Washington Post reported on the case.