Lawmakers push back On Pentagon’s Demands For Vets To Repay
In the first of what could be the start of what could be a national public relations nightmare, California lawmakers from both sides of the aisle piled on the Pentagon after reports it is forcing vets to repay enlistment bonuses improperly paid to thousands of National Guard soldiers a decade ago.
Nearly 10,000 California National Guard soldiers have been ordered to repay huge enlistment bonuses a decade after signing up to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan, a newspaper reported Saturday.
The Pentagon demanded the money back after audits revealed overpayments by the California Guard under pressure to fill ranks and hit enlistment goals. If soldiers refuse, they could face interest charges, wage garnishments and tax liens, in a story first reported by the Los Angeles Times.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy called the Pentagon demands “disgraceful.” McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, said the House will demand answers from the National Guard Bureau, the Pentagon agency that oversees the California branch of the Guard.
McCarthy was joined in outrage by fellow Golden State Republican congressmen Darrell Issa and Duncan Hunter, and Mark Takano, a Democrat.
“I find it hard to believe either you or your leadership team was aware that such a boneheaded decision was made to demand repayment,” Hunter wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter in which he asked Carter to put his weight behind a quick remedy.
Takano called it “ridiculous,” and said Congress is prepared to act.
“These service members — many of whom were sent into combat — are now being forced to make difficult and painful decisions to pay back thousands of dollars they never knew they owed,” said Takano said, a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. “The solution to this ridiculous situation is an act of Congress.”
Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said those who have been told to repay their bonuses can appeal the order.
“Soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who volunteer to serve this country deserve our gratitude, respect, and the full support of the Department of Defense,” Davis said.
“We have the authority to waive individual repayments on [a] one-by-one basis,” added Davis. “Individuals have to apply. There is not currently the authority to waive these things writ large.”
Iraq veteran and former Army Capt. Christopher Van Meter, 42, was ordered to repay a $25,000 reenlistment bonus the Pentagon said he was ineligible to receive. He was also asked to repay $21,000 in student loan repayments.
Van Meter told the LA Times that rather than fight the Army he paid back the money after refinancing his home.
“Anyone who has been in the US Military knows how this works out…. exactly, what a bone-headed decision…. I am dismayed at this… It defies logic, decency and morality….” Meter told the LA Times.
“Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said those who have been told to repay their bonuses can appeal the order. Soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who volunteer to serve this country deserve our gratitude, respect, and the full support of the Department of Defense,” Davis said.
“We have the authority to waive individual repayments on [a] one-by-one basis,” added Davis. “Individuals have to apply.”
A federal investigation in 2010 found thousands of bonuses and student loan payments were improperly doled out to California Guard soldiers. About 9,700 current and retired soldiers received notices to repay some or all of their bonuses with more than $22 million recovered so far.
Soldiers said they feel betrayed at having to repay the money.
“These bonuses were used to keep people in,” said 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 said 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.
The California Guard said it has to follow the law and collect the money.
“At the end of the day, the soldiers ended up paying the largest price,” Maj. Gen. Matthew Beevers, deputy commander of the California Guard told the Times. “We’d be more than happy to absolve these people of their debts. We just can’t do it. We’d be breaking the law.”
The Pentagon agency that oversees state Guard groups has said that bonus overpayments occurred in every state, but more so in California, which has 17,000 soldiers.
California Guard officials said they are helping soldiers and veterans file appeals with agencies that can erase the debts. But soldiers said it’s a long process and there’s no guarantee they’ll win.
Retired Army major and Iraq veteran Robert D’Andrea said he was told to repay his $20,000 because auditors could not find a copy of the contract he says he signed.
D’Andrea appealed and is running out of options.
“Everything takes months of work, and there is no way to get your day in court,” he said. “Some benefit of the doubt has to be given to the soldier.”
QUOTES IN THIS STORY CAME FROM THE LA TIMES AND THE ASSOCIATED PRESS.