It’s outrageous to take back soldiers’ bonuses

October 25, 2016
In The News

A decade ago, the Pentagon wrongly awarded substantial bonuses to thousands of people to induce them to enlist in the National Guard. Now, the department has realized its mistake and wants the money repaid.

But that demand is unfair to the soldiers who served in good faith. It should be dropped.

The problem arose after auditors looked at the records of 14,000 enlisting soldiers in California who got bonuses or tuition assistance to join. They found problems in the cases of 9,700 people, but the California Guard was able to resolve issues in about 4,000 of those cases — leaving 5,700 people owing money to the government. Some of these people are still in the Guard and some are not. 

Many of the payments were $15,000 or even more and were awarded at a time when the Guard was short of soldiers and under pressure to recruit. Bonuses were bestowed for various reasons — such as an agreement to serve for a set period of time or in a certain type of job. While there were soldiers in the Guard in other parts of the country who were found to have received payments improperly, the largest number of affected soldiers is in California. Some are already having their wages garnished.

The problem was that the bonuses were supposed to go to soldiers taking high-demand assignments. But in fact they were handed out much more liberally. In most cases, soldiers were not aware that any rules were being violated.

Col. Peter Cross, director of public affairs for the California Guard, said that over $100 million was improperly distributed and that the Pentagon has recouped about $22 million. Given that $100 million is a very small amount of money in the context of a defense operations budget that is more than $570 billion, and given that the vast majority of soldiers accepted payments in good faith, the Pentagon should forgive these debts.

There has been an outpouring of bi-partisan outrage over this situation, even though some members were alerted to it back in 2014. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) as well as Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer have said the Department of Defense should waive the repayments. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton said she was “appalled” at the demand for repayment. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) has asked Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to stop collection action for the rest of the year.

Even California Guard spokesman Cross calls the situation tragic. The problem is that the Guard does not have the authority to unilaterally waive the payments. Only the federal government does. The guard is urging Congress to pass the National Defense Authorization Act which has a provision that would provide relief to soldiers facing the repayment order.

These men and women were promised financial incentives to serve the U.S., often under dangerous conditions. Bad management on the part of the Guard or the Pentagon is no excuse to demand repayment now.