WASHINGTON D.C. — U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter says Wednesday he is suspending “all efforts to collect reimbursement” from improperly awarded enlistment bonuses given to some member of the California National Guard. His announcement follows public outrage from veterans and their families over attempts to recover the money 10 years after it was disbursed.
“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 says in a statement, adding this suspension will continue until “I am satisfied that our process is working effectively.”
“There is no more important responsibility for the Department of Defense than keeping faith with our people,” Carter continues in his statement. “While some soldiers knew or should have known they were ineligible for benefits they were claiming, many others did not.”
“These bonuses were used to keep [soldiers] in … people like me just got screwed.”
After investigators uncovered rampant fraud and mismanagement by California Guard officials trying to meet enlistment targets, the California National Guard has said it was required to try to recuperate the erroneously awarded funds, and does not have the authority to unilaterally waive the debts.
Prior to Carter’s announcement, the House Oversight Committee said Tuesday it has launched.
The committee asked the Guard to turn over all documents and audits related to the decade-old payments of $15,000 or more to soldiers who agreed to re-enlist for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The National Guard has said the bonuses were wrongly paid but its effort to reclaim them from thousands of soldiers and veterans in California and across the country has caused public outcry, including widespread criticism from Congress.
Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz of Utah and three other Republicans say in a letter that officials who mismanaged the bonus programs must be “held accountable.” The lawmakers say Guard officials must turn over relevant documents by Nov. 7.
Maj. Gen. Matthew Beevers of the California National Guard said officials are working with Congress to approve legislation ordering the National Guard Bureau to clear the debts of soldiers who were wrongly told they were eligible for bonuses of $15,000 or more.
Col. Peter Cross, spokesman for the California National Guard, said Tuesday about $22 million has been collected so far from fewer than 2,000 soldiers.
Other states may have been affected, but “California is where the majority of this occurred,” said National Guard Bureau spokeswoman Laura Ochoa.
Military men and women react to bonus collections
Soldiers say they feel betrayed at having to repay the money.
“These bonuses were used to keep people in,” says Christopher Van Meter, a 42-year-old former Army captain and Iraq veteran who was awarded a Purple Heart. “People like me just got screwed.”
Van Meter says he refinanced his home mortgage to repay $25,000 in reenlistment bonuses and $21,000 in student loan repayments that the military says was improperly given to him.
Susan Haley, a Los Angeles native and former Army master sergeant who deployed to Afghanistan in 2008, says she feels betrayed. She said she sends the Pentagon $650 a month — a quarter of her family’s income — to pay down her debt to the military.
“They’ll get their money, but I want those years back,” says Haley, who served for six years.
The Pentagon demanded the soldiers repay their enlistment bonuses after audits revealed over payments by the California National Guard under pressure to fill ranks and hit enlistment goals at the height of the two wars. If soldiers refuse, they could face interest charges, wage garnishments and tax liens.