House and Senate negotiators announced a compromise Tuesday that would permit the Pentagon to forgive debts owed by thousands of California National Guard soldiers who received improper bonuses during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The first hint of the scandal that has engulfed the California National Guard came more than eight years ago with a one-page memo that disclosed an internal investigation of a sergeant working at Mather Airport in Sacramento.
Lawmakers on Sunday condemned a Pentagon effort to recoup enlistment bonuses improperly paid to thousands of California National Guard soldiers a decade ago, saying the overpayments were not the soldiers’ fault and calling on the Pentagon or Congress to waive their debts.
Pentagon audits found widespread problems in enlistment bonuses given to soldiers in several National Guard units across the country, but soldiers facing repayment demands in those states won’t be eligible for waivers under a new federal law that will apply only to the California National Guard.
The Senate overwhelmingly approved a $619-billion defense authorization bill Thursday that includes direct help for thousands of California National Guard soldiers and veterans facing repayment demands for long-ago enlistment bonuses.
Members of Congress assailed the California National Guard commander Wednesday for ordering thousands of soldiers and veterans to repay enlistment bonuses, saying the demands caused military families unnecessary financial distress, harmed recruiting and broke faith with soldiers.
California lawmakers in the House and Senate offered legislative proposals Thursday that would allow nearly 10,000 California National Guard soldiers to keep improper enlistment bonuses they were paid during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan a decade ago.
When the California National Guard desperately needed interpreters to accompany troops headed to Iraq and Afghanistan, it promised enlistment bonuses of up to $20,000 each to dozens of Arabic, Dari and Pashto speakers.
The California National Guard can’t locate more than 4,000 of the 9,700 soldiers caught up in the military enlistment bonus scandal that has rocked one of the nation’s largest Guard organizations, according to its commander.
Moving to quell widespread criticism, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter on Wednesday ordered the Pentagon to suspend efforts to claw back enlistment bonuses improperly given to thousands of California National Guard members during the height of the Iraq war.
President Obama has told the Defense Department to expedite its review of nearly 10,000 California National Guard soldiers who have been ordered to repay enlistment bonuses improperly given a decade ago, but he is not backing growing calls for Congress to waive the debts, the White House said Tuesday.
The California National Guard told the state’s members of Congress two years ago that the Pentagon was trying to claw back reenlistment bonuses from thousands of soldiers, and even offered a proposal to mitigate the problem, but Congress took no action, according to a senior National Guard official.