Society

Congress Knew The Pentagon Was Taking Back Veterans Bonuses

| by Kathryn Schroeder

Members of Congress have reportedly known for two years that the Pentagon was trying to take back enlistment bonuses from California National Guard veterans but did nothing to address the issue.

The Pentagon has been demanding repayment of enlistment bonuses -- some as high as $15,000 or more -- from thousands of California National Guard soldiers, the Los Angeles Times reports. An audit found that 9,700 California National Guard members were not eligible for the payments they received or there had been errors in their paperwork.

Many of the veterans served multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It has now been revealed that the issue affects members in every state, meaning soldiers across the country owe large debts to the Pentagon.

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“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 Oct. 24.

California has received the focus of the issue is because it was the only state that completed an audit Mueller continued.

In the email, he also reminded members of Congress that the California National Guard had informed them about this issue two years ago.

In 2014, a former service member reached out to Military.com about having to repay a $10,000 bonus for leaving the Reserves to join the California National Guard as a police member for deployment to Iraq in 2009.

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“I served two years in Iraq and then came home in 2011 to find out CA [Army National Guard] (ARNG) did not have the correct paperwork and I was required to pay back the bonus,” the individual said.

Even though $3,000 was removed from the bonus for taxes, the individual had to pay back the full $10,000.

“The California ARNG says it is not their problem. I have to work with the IRS,” the individual continued.

The Pentagon has acknowledged that additional states have service members who must repay bonuses they received.

“We know that the majority [of cases] is out of California. However, there may be other states involved,” Pentagon spokeswoman Laura Ochoa told the L.A. Times. “We do not have a list of those states at this time.”

“The senior leadership of the department is looking very closely at this matter,” she said. “We take doing right by our service members very seriously.”

A provision in a passed defense bill sets a 10-year limit on the Pentagon being able to recoup bonuses that were improperly paid, Mueller said. But that provision has not been entirely approved because of the expense involved.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California wrote a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Oct. 24 requesting Congress pass legislation to stop the Pentagon’s debt recovery when they return after the Nov. 8 election.

“These brave Californians were willing to give everything to serve our country, and they earned every penny and benefit given to them,” she said. “The over-payment of enlistment signing bonuses by the Department of Defense should not be the responsibility of our service members or veterans to pay back, years after the fact.”

California Sens. Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer want the Department of Defense to waive the repayment of enlistment bonuses.

“These men and women voluntarily reenlisted with the understanding that they would receive substantial bonuses,” the senators said in a letter to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter. “The Department of Defense should use its existing authority … to waive the repayment of these enlistment bonuses” and “help those service members who have already fully or partially repaid these incentives.”

Both presidential nominees have commented on the issue.

Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton said she was “appalled” that the Pentagon was trying to take back bonuses and called on Congress to “swiftly pass legislation to right this wrong.”

Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, said it was another example of wrongdoing in a “corrupt” political system, adding that the people in government are “incompetent.”

Soldiers can appeal to have some or all of their debt waived, but the California National Guard cannot make that decision.

“Unfortunately, the CalGuard has no ability to relieve debt, only the Army or Congress can short-circuit this process," Mueller said.

Sources: Los Angeles Times, Military.com / Photo credit: The U.S. Army/Flickr

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