The Pentagon and Congress are both promising quick fixes to the scandal surrounding excessive National Guard bonus payments to soldiers. However, the nearly 10,000 California Guard soldiers involved may be just the tip of the iceberg.
The U.S. military prompted outrage and Congress’ attention over the weekend when news spread that it was demanding thousands of California National Guard service members pay back erroneous or fraudulent bonuses. Those payments were offered when it became difficult to recruit enough soldiers for enlistment or reenlistment during the most active years of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Los Angeles Times first reported Saturday that the California Guard had sent payback notices to almost 10,000 guard members.
On Wednesday, Department of Defense Secretary Ash Carter paused all further repayment requests from the Pentagon.
“While some soldiers knew or should have known they were ineligible for benefits they were claiming, many others did not,” Carter said in a statement.
“About 2,000 have been asked, in keeping with the law, to repay erroneous payments,” the defense secretary explained, adding that the Pentagon’s “established process” had mixed results. Stating it has already “granted relief” to hundreds of members, Carter continued, “that process has simply moved too slowly and in some cases imposed unreasonable burdens on service members.”
While the change of plans is welcomed among servicemen who refused to pay the bonuses back, the White House is not sure how the Pentagon will handle those who “decided to pay them back anyway out of a sense of duty.”
Two years ago, the Los Angeles Times reported, the California National Guard proposed a legislative fix, adding “legislative language related to ‘service-member debt relief equity.’” According to the document obtained by Politico, the National Guard suggested the change because “[t]housands of soldiers have inadvertently incurred debt, through no fault of their own, because of faulty Army recruiting or accounting practices and malicious individuals.”
Despite bringing up the difficulties service members had been going through at the time, the National Guard’s list of priorities for the fiscal 2015 NDAA makes no mention of the Pentagon’s bonus recoupment policy.
To add fuel to the fire, the initial report published by the Los Angeles Times only focused on the audit targeting California soldiers who were promised bonuses to re-enlist, leaving out soldiers who may have gone through the same predicament in the other 49 states.
In the period between 2000 and 2008, the Defense Department “went from spending $891 million for selective re-enlistment bonuses to spending $1.4 billion on them.” If only 10,000 California veterans were promised bonuses to go back to war, we’re left wondering whether the new policy will impact veterans outside of the Golden State.
“Ultimately, we 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,” Carter promised, adding that “our important obligation to the taxpayer” will also be respected.
In 2010, the Sacramento Bee reported that the California National Guard had an incentive program in place that had misspent as much as $100 million. At the time, the National Guard’s irresponsible spending was deemed “war profiteering.” But ever since the scandal broke, lower-ranking service members have stepped up, claiming to suffer due to the Pentagon’s decision to retrieve their bonuses.
Have other service members across the country been the victims of the same reenlistment effort, and if so, are others struggling to make sense of this issue, as well?
According to the Rand Corporation, “[m]ore than 1.5 million military personnel were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan between 2002 and 2007, many of them more than once.” The report adds that the U.S. Department of Defense increased retention by expanding “and [increasing] generosity of reenlistment bonuses.” It cites the Army as the group whose “number of occupations eligible for a bonus as well as the dollar amount of bonuses” were raised more than any other service.
In 2005, USA Today reported that “[s]oldiers are re-enlisting at rates ahead of the Army’s targets, even as overall recruiting is suffering after two years of the Iraq war.”
The report added that between October 1 and June of that year, the Army had “re-enlisted 53,120 soldiers, 6% ahead of its goal of about 50,000 for that period,” thanks to “unprecedented cash bonuses.”
At the time, there were about 105,000 Army soldiers in Iraq, including National Guard and Reserve members. The fact reenlistment efforts had persuaded 53,120 soldiers to sign up by 2005 may prove that the 10,000 California service members figure may just be scratching the surface of this story.