Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has halted the Pentagon's attempts to recoup overpaid bonuses paid out to members of the California Army National Guard and has promised efforts to help the resolve the matter by July 2017.
A decade ago, nearly 10,000 soldiers had been given unauthorized bonuses by the California Guard to help it meet enlistment targets for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. After the Pentagon discovered during audits that the "bonuses" were not authorized, it demanded the soldiers return the money, Fox News reports.
On average, these soldiers had been paid $15,000 or more. In one instance, 42-year-old Iraq veteran Christopher Van Meter had to refinance his home to pay the Army back a $25,000 reenlistment bonus.
“These bonuses were used to keep people in,” Van Meter said. “People like me just got screwed.”
On Oct. 26, Carter announced he had ordered the Pentagon to suspend further efforts to recoup the "overpayments" until lawmakers or the courts have figured out how to cancel the soldiers’ debts, The Washington Post reports.
“There is no more important responsibility for the Department of Defense than keeping faith with our people,” Carter said. “That means treating them fairly and equitably, honoring their service and sacrifice, and keeping our word.”
The defense secretary noted that several soldiers had already successfully appealed and canceled their debts, stating that the Pentagon would cease demanding more repayments to give all of those affected the time necessary to make their case.
“Hundreds of affected Guard members in California have sought and been granted relief,” Carter said. “But that process has simply moved too slowly and in some cases imposed unreasonable burdens on service members. That is unacceptable.”
Carter has also ordered Peter Levin of the Pentagon to formulate a process to resolve all debts by July 2017. The defense secretary has not promised to stop any soldiers from having to pay back their bonuses, stating “under the law, we have to keep that option open.”
While Carter’s order will provide temporary relief to these soldiers, Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan of Florida has called for more immediate and absolute action.
“The Pentagon needs to tell veterans it will permanently -- not temporarily -- end its obscene effort to collect enlistment bonuses from a decade ago,” Buchanan said.
On Oct. 24, the House Oversight Committee launched an investigation into the California Guard, demanding it turn over all documents and audits to determine which officials were responsible for paying out unauthorized bonuses, CBS News reports.
Oversight Chairman Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah promised that those responsible for the fiasco would be “held accountable.”