- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Pentagon has suspended “clawbacks,” or forced repayments of re-enlistment bonuses handed out to California National Guard units, vowing to revamp the broken military pay system that forced thousands of U.S. service members to fork over money granted a decade ago.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced Wednesday that the Pentagon is suspending all efforts to recoup roughly $20 million in re-enlistment bonuses granted to 10,000 California National Guard members who agreed to serve multiple combat tours in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.

The move was made in the wake of anger from lawmakers of both parties on Capitol Hill, outraged that veterans were forced to hand over bonuses awarded during some of the bloodiest years of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Pentagon officials have already identified 2,000 Guard members who were granted bonuses to which they were not entitled, but remain unclear on how many of the other 8,000 Guardsmen were granted the bonuses rightly.

“While some soldiers knew or should have known they were ineligible for benefits they were claiming, many others did not,” Mr. Carter said in a statement Wednesday.

However Rep. Jeff Miller, Florida Republican and House Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman, called Mr. Carter’s order a half-measure because the issue of bonus clawbacks is broader than California and the Pentagon’s order does nothing for the 2,000 who had to pay back their bonuses despite having served and, in many cases, been wounded or killed.

It’s “a weak and ham-handed attempt to shift the focus away from the Obama administration’s shameful treatment of service members and veterans,” he said.

The blanket order to all National Guard units on combat bonuses — merited and unmerited alike — was symptomatic of the broken military pay process.

The main Defense Department authority responsible for vetting cases of fraud and errors in military pay, the defense office of hearings and appeals, has only limited authority to grant waivers to service members unfairly accused of receiving bonuses they did not earn.

That system “has simply moved too slowly and in some cases imposed unreasonable burdens on service members,” putting in bureaucratic limbo the 8,000 soldiers who are fighting to prove they earned the bonuses they were paid, Mr. Carter said.

“That is unacceptable,” he added in the statement.

Peter Levine, acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, has been given the task of retooling the military pay and combat bonus system, eliminating the bureaucratic red tape strangling the system and creating a “one-stop shop” for Guard members who can prove they earned the bonuses they were granted years ago.

“We will make them whole again from what we have done to them,” Mr. Levine said at the Pentagon, adding that the system will validate service members “who were caught up in this through no fault of their own.”

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said President Obama is pleased that the Pentagon has suspended its collection efforts but said some people still might need to repay bonuses that were paid in error.

“If there was a payment that was made in error, they have a responsibility to taxpayers to go and recover that money. But our first priority, and the overriding priority, should be ensuring that our service members are treated fairly,” he said.

That said, the Obama administration thinks it is “important that people are not punished unfairly because of the wrongdoing of some other people,” Mr. Earnest said.

The reaction from Capitol Hill was largely supportive of the Pentagon’s decision to suspend its collection efforts on California Guard members, 32 of whom were killed during combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But several lawmakers and veterans’ advocates doubt the Pentagon’s changes will result in permanent reforms to the pay and bonus system.

“It’s mildly encouraging that Secretary Carter has paused Pentagon efforts to take money away from veterans, but his solution misses the mark,” said Mark Lucas, executive director of Concerned Veterans for America.

“Adjusting the [current] program with the hope of a resolution is an insufficient solution,” he said in a statement.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, praised the Defense Department’s suspension of repayments and vowed to work with the Pentagon to make sure its review process succeeds.

“Our veterans have already given more than what they owe to this nation, and today’s swift action demonstrates that the [Defense] Department agrees,” he said, adding that Congress “must continue to work to provide a long-term legislative solution so that this never happens again.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, also urged the Pentagon to develop systemic solutions to the military pay and combat bonus program to avoid any repeat of the National Guard fiasco.

“We must work to permanently lift the shadow of these clawbacks and address the burden on those who have already been forced to return bonuses they accepted in good faith,” she said in a statement.

Although the fundamentals of the revamped military pay and bonus program will not change, the new system will take “a process that has taken years to one that will take months,” Mr. Levine said.

Soldiers will still have to have their appeals reviewed on a case-by-case basis, and the Pentagon is not seeking authority to grant blanket waivers for U.S. service members, which would require action from Congress.

But Mr. Levine ensured that the process would be different enough to guarantee that service members’ appeals would not stagnate, wrapped in departmental red tape, and not force department officials to “create something new out of whole cloth.”

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