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Pentagon demands money back from National Guard soldiers


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The Washington Post  /  October 24, 2016

The Pentagon is reviewing how to resolve the cases of thousands of Army National Guard members who received enlistment bonuses of at least $15,000, only to be told later that the money wasn’t really theirs and must be repaid.

About 10,500 members of the California Army National Guard could be affected, said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.

The military offered similar bonuses to Guard members in other parts of the country but hasn’t disclosed how many.

Davis said Monday that senior Pentagon leaders are “looking very closely at this matter.” Officials deemed the bonuses in California improper and have established a process for service members to argue that they should not repay the money.

“We continue to encourage service members who have been impacted by this situation to pursue those reviews and any relief they may be entitled to receive,” Davis said. “In the meantime, [the Defense Department] will work with the Army, the National Guard Bureau and the California Army National Guard and others to strengthen efforts to respond to this situation.”

At least some of the California cases, first reported by the Los Angeles Times on Saturday, tie to a criminal investigation in which thousands of soldiers received improper bonuses and at least one soldier, Master Sgt. Toni Jaffe, pleaded guilty in 2011 to filing false claims while serving as incentive manager for the California Army National Guard. But the Pentagon also acknowledges that similar cases exist elsewhere.

The National Guard Bureau on Monday referred [dodged] all questions to the Pentagon.

Davis said the Defense Department has the authority to waive individual cases after a review by an organization known as the Defense Office of Hearings and Appeals (DOHA).

The office, however, does not have the authority to waive all cases of a similar nature at one time, and it can take months for a service member to schedule a hearing.

Davis said that in some cases, service members will be able to seek waivers through the appeal system that presently exists. In others, the Defense Department may need to work with Congress to change existing laws that define how repayments are required and reviewed, he said.

“I think we always know the importance of keeping faith with our people,” Davis said. “People who volunteer to serve in the armed forces do so at great sacrifice to their own personal lives and to their families, and we want to keep faith with them. This has our attention, and we want to make sure we’re doing everything we can within the boundaries of the law to help our people.”

The California National Guard refused to comment on Monday, but released a statement Sunday saying that it does not have the authority to waive repayments that the National Guard Bureau and the Army Department oversees.

“The California National Guard welcomes any law passed by Congress to waive these debts,” the statement said. “Until that time, our priority is to advocate for our Soldiers through this ‘difficult process’.”

The California cases have attracted the attention of Congress.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R.-Calif.) said in a statement Monday that it is “disgraceful” that service members face the prospect of repaying money they were offered.

“Our military heroes should not shoulder the burden of military recruiters’ faults from over a decade ago,” McCarthy said. “They should not owe for what was promised during a difficult time in our country. Rather, we are the ones who owe a debt for the great sacrifices our heroes have made — some of whom unfortunately paid the ultimate sacrifice.”

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R.-Calif.) said in a letter sent to Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter on Sunday that the Pentagon asking for the money back was “disgraceful and insulting,” and requested that Carter intervene directly.

“I find it difficult to believe that either you or your leadership team was aware that such a boneheaded decision was made to demand repayment — and I ask that you utilize your authority to influence a solution, including a possible legislative fix if deemed necessary, that’s in the best interests of the individuals and families impacted,” Hunter wrote.

Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) added that she was “shocked by the actions of the Pentagon and the California National Guard,” and that she considers it unacceptable to “hold these brave men and women accountable for the mistakes of their superiors.”

Davis said there are parallels between the California cases and others that were resolved in June in which members of the Pentagon’s civilian bomb squad could have been required to pay back up to $173,000 each that the Defense Department determined they were erroneously paid since 2008. The decision was announced shortly after a Washington Post article detailed the hardships that members of the unit faced.

In those cases, bomb squad members were recruited with the promise of receiving a 25 percent salary boost in hazardous-duty pay. A Pentagon agency later determined that the members were not eligible for the incentive, after all. The unit still exists, but now includes just a handful of members and has been unable to fill existing holes in its staff as employees leave for other jobs.

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Pentagon suspends California National Guard bonus repayments

Associated Press  /  October 26, 2016

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.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain said the move by the Defense Department is "a long-overdue first step," and he vowed to work with Senate colleagues "to explore all options available to hold those responsible for this unacceptable situation accountable and to ensure this never happens again."

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.

If soldiers refuse to pay the bonus back, they could face interest charges, wage garnishments and tax liens.

"While some soldiers knew or should have known they were ineligible for benefits they were claiming, many others did not," Carter said, adding that the new process will put "as little burden as possible on any soldier who received an improper payment through no fault of his or her own. At the same time, it will respect our important obligation to the taxpayer."

But the country's largest combat veteran's organization, said the measure "doesn't go deep enough." Brian Duffy, national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States and its Auxiliary, said the erroneous bonuses were "the fault of a system, not of any recipient."

As many as 6,500 California National Guard soldiers have been asked to repay the enlistment bonuses.

"We deal with these problems all the time, but we deal with it in ones and twos, not in hundreds and thousands," said Gordon Trowbridge, deputy Pentagon press secretary. The Pentagon said it is investigating cases beyond California, but said those will likely add up to "dozens."

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who had pressed the Pentagon to suspend the program, said Wednesday, "I'm glad the Pentagon came to its senses."

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., also welcomed the development, saying he spoke with Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work Tuesday night and vowed to work with other members of Congress to provide a legislative solution so the repayment issue does not recur.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., welcomed the Pentagon announcement, but said lawmakers need to find a permanent solution.

"The heroes who served our country in uniform deserve every bonus and benefit they received in good faith," she said. "We all must work together to swiftly address this situation and monitor any additional issues that come up in California and other states."

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Efforts to collect have been "suspended". That is their way of saying "News reports about us taking $20,000 back from service members we willingly gave it to in order to convince them to re-enlist will hurt Democrats this election. They still OWE the money, we'll just wait 'til the lame duck AFTER the election to continue with collections".

Sad thing is, these men & women CAN'T take back the years they might not have given to the government had the bonuses NOT been offered. And if the government DOES do the right thing and say "You know what, keep it.", the IRS will want the tax money for that $20,000 debt that was forgiven...it's considered "income", they'll say. Nevermind the fact that the taxes were paid when they received the bonus.

If the government wants to collect on the wrongful payments, go up the chain of command. Find the officer highest up the chain who approved or encouraged the offering of the unauthorized bonuses and hold HIS feet to the fire. The recipients of the bonus only took what was offered by the recruiters. The contracts offered up by the recruiters SHOULD be binding on BOTH parties. If the bonuses were in the contracts, they rightfully are owed to the recipients and should NOT be allowed to be taken back at a future date. If the bonuses were not authorized, find out who included them in the contracts...who allowed it...and who should have caught the error WHEN IT HAPPENED. The person accepting the offer isn't to blame, and should not be punished.

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