- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Pentagon has suspended repayments of mistaken or fraudulent wartime bonuses handed out to California National Guard units a decade ago, with plans to revamp how the Defense Department determines which servicemembers should and should not be allowed to keep the those funds.

The retooled system will provide a “one stop shop” for Guard members who can prove they were rightfully awarded pay bonuses and validate servicemembers “who were caught up in this through no fault of their own,” Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Peter Levine told reporters Wednesday.

“We will make them whole again from what we have done to them,” Mr. Levine said at the Pentagon, referring to the 10,000 members of the California Guard being forced to pay back hundreds of thousands of dollars reenlistment bonuses, granted after agreeing to serve multiple combat tours in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.

His comments came the same day Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced the Pentagon is suspending all collection efforts on affected Guard members, until the new review system is in place.

“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, noting department officials have already identified 2,000 Guard members were granted bonuses they were not entitled to.

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 servicemembers unfairly accused of receiving bonuses they did not earn.

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

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

The new review 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. servicemembers, which would require action from Congress.

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

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said President Obama is “pleased” that the Pentagon 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 at the White House.

Asked if Mr. Obama expects many Guardsmen to get their money back, Mr. Earnest replied, “The president’s expectation is that each case would be considered individually and each person who committed to serving this country is going to make sure that any promises that were made to them are kept.”

Congressional leaders praised the Defense Department’s decision to suspend repayments and vowed to work with the Pentagon to make sure its new review process succeeds.

“Our veterans have already given more than what they owe to this nation, and today’s swift action demonstrates that the Department agrees,” House Majority Leader and California Republican Kevin McCarthy said in a statement Wednesday.

“We must continue to work to provide a long-term legislative solution so that this never happens again,” he added.

House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, urged the Pentagon to ensure the temporary fixes to the bonus review system become permanent, to avoid any repeat of the ongoing 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.

Dave Boyer contributed to this report

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