On Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter ordered the Pentagon to immediately suspend all collection efforts from thousands of National Guard members who were given enlistment bonuses.
“I want to be clear: This process has dragged on too long, for too many service members. Too many cases have languished without action. That’s unfair to service members and to taxpayers,” the Secretary said.
Despite denials by members of Congress, including House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the California National Guard notified Congress and other federal leaders in 2014 that it wanted legislation to provide relief to Guardsmen who were being forced to repay their enlistment bonuses and student loans to the Pentagon.
“Never did I hear this come up,” Rep. Kevin McCarthy said in an interview with Fox News.
On Tuesday, however, the California Military Department issued a statement on Tuesday:
“The California National Guard cannot waive debts unilaterally, as that authority rests at the federal level. In 2014, however, California National Guard leadership did reach out to congressional and other federal leaders to encourage alleviation of these debts. Since recent media reports, many legislative leaders (both state and federal) have expressed an interest in supporting this action to waive the debts.”
According to a Los Angeles Times report, thousands of National Guard soldiers had been ordered to repay enlistment bonuses of at least $15,000 ten years after signing up for service.
The Pentagon originally sought the reimbursements because it found that the California National Guard had paid bonuses to guardsmen who did not meet the qualifications.
“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 on Wednesday.
The Defense Secretary also assigned a team of senior Defense Department officials to investigate the matter. He has ordered that the newly assigned team:
“establish no later than Jan. 1 a streamlined, centralized process that ensures the fair and equitable treatment of our service members and the rapid resolution of these cases.
About 2,000 have been asked, in keeping with the law, to repay erroneous payments. There is an established process in place by which service members can seek relief from such obligations.
Hundreds of affected Guard members in California have sought and been granted relief. But that process has simply moved too slowly and in some cases imposed unreasonable burdens on service members. That is unacceptable.”
Carter also promised that the Pentagon “will provide for a process that puts as little burden as possible on any soldier who received an improper payment through no fault of his or her own.” However, he did acknowledge the tightrope that he and the Pentagon are walking on this issue, “At the same time, [the Pentagon] will respect our important obligation to the taxpayer.”