On Wednesday morning, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter finally responded to growing and unacceptable California National Guard scandal.
In response to recent reports that the Pentagon ordered almost 10,000 soldiers to pay back bonuses they received 10 years earlier after fulfilling their obligations to our nation, Secretary Carter said:
“I have ordered the Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS) to suspend all efforts to collect reimbursement from affected California National Guard members, effective as soon as practical.”
While it is important for optics that the Secretary comment on the issue in an attempt to start working on the problem, actions will always speak louder than words when it comes to a bureaucracy attempting to fix its internal errors.
“As soon as practical” doesn’t mean emergency action required — that means the soldiers affected will still be suffering while the Pentagon has time to sort out its inadequacies. Essentially DFAS has been told to “press pause” on their pursuance of their debt collection while the problem is sorted out.
Carter's full statement on the Pentagon's effort to address enlistment collections: pic.twitter.com/M0bnFD8isf— Defense One (@DefenseOne) October 26, 2016
In the mid 2000s, the California National Guard came under pressure to deliver high enlistment and reenlistment numbers and enticed soldiers with cash bonuses for certain job positions or to extend their contracts. Many of these bonuses were given upfront and they were too good to pass up.
It worked. The cash incentives persuaded many soldiers to reenlist and even go back to war.
Ten years later the Pentagon launched an audit into the California National Guard and found that thousands of soldiers, upward of 9,700 were overpaid in bonuses (or were not qualified to received them in the first place) and ordered these soldiers to repay the debts that they now owe the Pentagon. Most bonuses were over $15,000.
The problem with the overpayment is that it wasn’t a soldier level error. It was at a bureaucratic level, well above their pay grade. And now the individual soldier is being severely punished for it.
The Pentagon’s actions are abhorrent. It is an absolute disgrace to all who have worn the uniform to see veterans being taken advantage of by the biggest government agency in the United States and face the double standard of having to repay a bonus after they already fulfilled their commitment.
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Veterans struggle enough with an inefficient and labyrinthine bureaucracy when they deal with the Department of Veterans Affairs — now they have to deal with bureaucratic incompetence from the Department of Defense as well?
When it comes to administrative issues, soldiers often get pushed through an assembly line style, told to sign paperwork and move on. It’s usually rushed with little explanation other than a signature and stamp of approval on your paperwork. And if a financial specialist or someone else in the field tells you that you are eligible for a bonus, you are going to trust their judgement and take their word for it.
The point is that there was no malicious or fraudulent intent on behalf of the majority of these soldiers. They served their additional time owed from the bonuses, years they will never get back.
The National Guard Bureau has admitted that bonuses were overpaid in all 50 states, so it’s likely California National Guard soldiers were not the only ones who were affected by the wrath of the Pentagon looking to collect.
This will hurt recruitment and retention. The Pentagon needs to swiftly forgive these soldiers debts, and assist with getting their credit promptly back in order, and attempt to reassure soldiers that this will never happen again. Unfortunately, even once this issue is fixed, it cannot undo the years of financial stress and hardship the Pentagon placed on these soldiers lives.
Smith is the author of Danger Close: My Epic Journey as a Combat Helicopter Pilot in Iraq & Afghanistan. Smith is a former Kiowa Warrior pilot in command and air mission command in the 101st Airborne with two combat tours to Iraq and Afghanistan.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.