California National Guard troops train at Fort Hunter Liggett. Army photo
California National Guard troops train at Fort Hunter Liggett. Army photo

San Diego-area lawmakers Wednesday applauded a decision by Defense Secretary Ash Carter to suspend an effort by the Pentagon to reclaim enlistment bonuses paid to around 10,000 California National Guard personnel.

The bonuses were paid out around a decade ago to maintain force levels at the height of the country’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but subsequent investigations uncovered widespread overpayments, fraud and mismanagement by California National Guard officials.

Soldiers who received the money said the Pentagon is reneging on agreements and imposing financial hardships on them.

“First, I have ordered the Defense Finance and Accounting Service to suspend all efforts to collect reimbursement from affected California National Guard members, effective as soon as is practical,” Carter said in a statement released by the Defense Department. “This suspension will continue until I am satisfied that our process is working effectively.”

Carter said he also ordered a senior personnel official to assess the situation and establish, by the beginning of next year, a streamlined, centralized process that ensures fair and equitable treatment of service members. He said he wants to have all outstanding cases resolved no later than July 1 next year.

Carter said some guardsmen knew or should have known they were ineligible for the benefits they were claiming, but many others did not. He said the process for guard members to seek relief from making repayments dragged on too slowly.

“This isn’t just the right action to take, it’s the only action to take — and I’m pleased that the Secretary of Defense is waiving repayment for most guardsmen,” said Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, R-El Cajon. “But it shouldn’t be lost on anyone that the secretary is taking this action through existing authority and that same authority could have been exercised at any point since the size and scope of the situation was realized.”

Hunter and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, both sent letters to Carter earlier this week demanding a stop to the so-called “clawback” effort by the Pentagon.

In a statement, Issa said a temporary suspension is not enough.

“The Department of Defense needs to permanently stop these collection efforts and return every penny to those who’ve already repaid them,” Issa said. “The men and women who served our nation upheld their end of the bargain. It’s time for the Department of Defense to do the same.”

Via a Twitter posting, Rep. Scott Peters, D-San Diego, said, I applaud this decision from the Secretary of Defense, but I am committed to finding a permanent fix.”

Congressional leaders on both sides of the political aisle had called on Carter to halt the collections.

—City News Service