Pentagon suspends guard bonus repayments

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Pentagon worked Wednesday to stave off a public relations nightmare, suspending efforts to force California National Guard troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan to repay their enlistment bonuses that may have been improperly awarded.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter ordered the suspension in the wake of angry reaction from congressional Republicans and Democrats. They demanded he relieve the burden on Guard members following news reports that soldiers were asked to repay bonuses that in some cases totaled more than $25,000.

The announcement does not end the reimbursement process, but postpones collection efforts while the Pentagon and Congress look for a long-term solution.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said President Barack Obama was pleased with the decision, but said it was important for the Pentagon “to follow through” by finding a long-term solution. Obama had warned the Defense Department earlier this week not to “nickel and dime” service members who were victims of wrongdoing by overzealous recruiters.

In a statement issued during a meeting of defense ministers in Brussels, Carter said efforts to collect reimbursement from Guard members should stop “as soon as is practical.” Carter said he has ordered the department to set up a streamlined process by Jan. 1 to help troops get relief from the repayment obligation, because the current program has moved too slowly.

Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Peter Levine told reporters Wednesday that the process of identifying and processing the California Guard members who might have to repay the money may take up to 10 days.

“If we determine that recoupment was unjustified, there will be a process that allows the recovery of that and the reversal of that money,” Levine said.

Levine said they are looking to set up “a one-stop place” for those affected to get a hearing and review, noting that the goal is to eliminate “a bunch of sequential processes.” The details of that process have yet to be determined, he said.

Among about 14,000 California Guard members whose bonuses and other incentive payments were reviewed, about 3,000 of those are men and women have since left the National Guard, Levine said. They will be eligible for repayment as well, but it hasn’t been determined how those cases will be handled since they do not have current addresses or contact details for many of those individuals, he added.

Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, called the measure “a weak and ham-handed attempt to shift the focus away from the Obama administration’s shameful treatment of service members and veterans.”

“Carter seems to have no plan to make those who’ve already been forced to pay back their bonuses whole, and by focusing only on the California Guard, he is ignoring what media reports indicate could be a national problem,” Miller said.

The Los Angeles Times reported over the weekend that the Pentagon demanded that thousands of soldiers repay their enlistment bonuses after audits revealed overpayments by the California National Guard. Recruiters under pressure to fill ranks and hit enlistment goals at the height of the two wars improperly offered bonuses of $15,000 or more to soldiers who re-enlisted.

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