Days after a news organization reported the Defense Department is forcing National Guardsmen from California to pay back bonuses received in error, lawmakers and advocates are calling on officials to forgive their debt.
Rep. Julia Brownley, a Democrat from the state, is among a growing number of lawmakers calling for the Pentagon to stop seeking repayment of enlistment bonuses from thousands of California National Guardsmen and veterans.
“I am outraged that our servicemembers and veterans are being asked to repay bonuses and benefits promised to them when they answered the call to serve our nation,” she said in a statement Monday. “I intend to introduce legislation as soon as Congress returns to waive repayment, and will work with my colleagues to ensure a full accounting of how this mismanagement occurred.”
Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Republican from the state and a former Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, called the repayment policy “boneheaded.”
“It remains my firm belief that even the simple request of asking soldiers to repay money contingent on reenlistment is disgraceful and insulting,” Hunter said in a letter to Defense Secretary Ashton 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 — and I ask that you utilize your authority to influence a solution, including a possible legislative fix if determined necessary, that’s in the best interest of the individuals and families impacted,” he added.
More than 10,000 veterans have been required to pay back bonuses of as much as $15,000 or face such penalties as interest charges and tax liens, according to an article published Saturday by David Cloud, a reporter for The Los Angeles Times.
Like other branches of service, the Guard used enlistment bonuses to entice more people to enter the ranks a decade ago during the height of the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
California National Guard officials were later found guilty of mismanaging the program. In 2014, eight current or former members were indicted on federal charges for fraudulently obtaining recruiting referral bonuses, The Associated Press reported.
The Pentagon is looking to speed up the process for granting waivers to the estimated 10,500 service members, mostly from the California National Guard, who received a combined total of about $22 million in improperly awarded bonuses, according to a statement from Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.
But under current law and regulations, the department isn’t authorized to grant a blanket waiver, so individuals still have to petition the Defense Office of Hearings and Appeals to have a debt waived, Davis said.
“We have the authority to waive individual payments on a one-by-one basis,” he said. “We do not have the authority to waive these things writ large.”
California Guard officials have also pledged to work with veterans who wish to file appeals to the National Guard Bureau and the Army Board for Correction of Military Records to wipe out the debts, The Los Angeles Times reported.
Davis, the Pentagon spokesman, said the department continues to encourage service members to pursue a formal review process to seek relief from the debt.
“We take doing right by our service members very seriously,” he said. “This has the attention of our leadership and we’re looking at what we can do to assist.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, another Democrat from the state, criticized the department’s repayment policy in a letter Monday to Maj. Gen. David Baldwin, adjutant general of the California National Guard, and Air Force Gen. Joseph L. Lengyel, chief of the National Guard Bureau.
“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,” he wrote.
Veterans groups also weighed in on the controversy.
“It is unthinkable to me that the Department of Defense’s first reaction is to punish service members who fulfilled their end of the deal,” Brian Duffy, national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said in a statement. “This is how you destroy all faith in a Pentagon that is supposed to have your back.
“These soldiers are being punished for something that is not their doing, which is why the VFW calls for the Pentagon to waive these debts without requiring these soldiers to first admit fault,” he added. “They extended their enlistment contracts and did their duty as ordered. Many paid the ultimate price, and far more returned home wounded, ill and injured. Instead of seeking repayment, the Pentagon owes them a debt of thanks and an apology for insulting their honorable service to our nation.”
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.