WASHINGTON (AP) — Senior U.S. military officials sought to assure a House oversight panel Wednesday that they're taking aggressive steps to ensure that thousands of soldiers who received enlistment bonuses and served in combat won't be forced to return the money.
Army Maj. Gen. David Baldwin, the adjutant general of the California Guard, called for a "streamlined adjudication process" that forgives debts that may be owed by troops who received an enlistment bonus or other benefits "through no fault of their own." But Baldwin also told the House Armed Services military personnel subcommittee that soldiers "who failed to meet the conditions of their (military) contracts" should be required to give the money back.
The Guard offered enlistment bonuses of as much as $15,000 and student loan aid to nearly 10,000 soldiers at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2000s. The Pentagon began demanding the money back after audits revealed overpayments by the Guard under pressure to fill ranks and hit enlistment goals.
To block the claw-back, House and Senate negotiators included provisions in the annual defense policy bill ordering the Pentagon to waive the recoupment of a bonus unless there is evidence that shows service members "knew or reasonably should have known" that they weren't eligible to receive the money. A review board is to examine all the bonuses and student loan repayment contracts awarded between 2004 and 2015 "for which the department has reason to believe a recoupment of pay may be warranted," the measure states.
Members of the California congressional delegation and veterans leaders expressed outrage over the Pentagon's decision to force troops who had served overseas to return money when they said the fault lay with military recruiters.
"We betrayed the trust of the troops and there is no excuse for it," said Rep. Paul Cook, R-Calif., as he pounded his desk with his fist. Cook added that he still doesn't have a "warm and fuzzy feeling" that all the needed fixes are being made.
Baldwin acknowledged making soldiers and veterans "repay money given to them years ago has resulted in severe hardships for them and their families."
He also described the foundation of the scandal, which began in 2004 when thousands of soldiers enlisted or extended their military service. Six years later, he said, the California National Guard discovered inaccuracies in the way a number of bonuses were handled and launched an investigation. The inquiry "found gross mismanagement and fraud" that led to dozens of military personnel, including generals, being punished, according to Baldwin.
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