The California National Guard announced that 10,000 California National Guard soldiers have been ordered to repay enlistment bonuses on Saturday, a decade after signing up to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan .
The Pentagon is demanding the money back after audits revealed over payments by the California Guard under pressure to fill ranks to hit enlistment goals. Congress was made aware of the Pentagon’s intentions by the National Guard at least two years ago but took no action, according to the LA Times.
Audits that were completed last month found that 9,700 California Guard members were not entitled to the payments or that there had been errors in their paperwork, according to the LA Times report on Saturday.
A senior National Guard official stated the the bonuses were paid to National Guard members in every state, which raises the possibility of the Pentagon pursuing debt collection outside the state of California.
“This is a national issue and affects all states,” Andreas Mueller, the chief of federal policy for the California Guard, wrote in an email to the state’s congressional delegation Monday.
He stated the reason California has been the target of this debt collection is because it was “the only state that audited” bonus payments at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
On Monday, a Pentagon official stated the bonus over payment problem likely extends beyond the California National Guard.
“We know that the majority [of cases] is out of California. However, there may be other states involved,” said Laura Ochoa, a Pentagon spokeswoman. “We do not have a list of those states at this time.”
According to Mueller, a provision in the defense bill could have established a 10-year limit on how long the Pentagon could recover bonuses but final passage beyond the House was uncertain.
Congress is not expected to return to Washington until after the November 8th presidential election but some lawmakers are trying to get a head start on the issue.
“These brave Californians were willing to give everything to serve our country, and they earned every penny and benefit given to them,” said House Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi. “The over-payment of enlistment signing bonuses by the Department of Defense should not be the responsibility of our service members or veterans to pay back, years after the fact.”
The California National Guard does not have the legal power to waive repayment, it requires an act of Congress, according to officials.
If no action is taken to intervene on this so-called “debt collection,” thousands of soldiers -many who served multiple combat tours- could face interest charges, wage garnishments and tax liens.
But this is not the first time the Pentagon has turned their backs on California National Guard soldiers.
After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, California National Guard soldiers’ contracts were automatically extended and some even went without paychecks due to a flaw in the payment system.
A California National Guardsmen serving in Kuwait wrote:
“My expiration, term of service date was June 28. But since I’m in the Guard I was automatically extended. Apparently no one told the finance department, because I was kicked out of the system. So I haven’t been paid since. It will be two months on Sept. 1 since I’ve received any money from the Army. I have a family. What am I supposed to tell my creditors?… We’re all on Title 10 orders. I’ve even been told I have to re-enlist. Does anyone really think I’m going to re-enlist after being treated like this? If I can’t be put back into the system, then I should be sent home.”
Presidential candidate Donald Trump weighed in on the issue, from a rally in Florida, calling the case another example of wrongdoing in a “corrupt” political system.
“This can only happen with these incompetent people we have,” he said. “No common sense. They’re incompetent.”
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