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The Pentagon demanded money back from National Guard soldiers. It’s still reviewing what to do next.

By: Dan Lamothe, The Washington Post
October 24, 2016 Updated: October 24, 2016 at 9:39 pm
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The Pentagon is reviewing how to resolve the cases of thousands of Army National Guard members who collectively received at least $30 million, only to be told later that the money wasn’t really theirs and must be repaid.

About 10,000 members of the California Army National Guard could be affected, said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman. The military offered similar bonuses to Guard members in other parts of the country but hasn’t disclosed how many.

Davis said Monday that senior Pentagon leaders are “looking very closely at this matter.” Officials deemed the bonuses in California improper and have established a process for service members to argue that they should not repay the money.

“We continue to encourage service members who have been impacted by this situation to pursue those reviews and any relief they may be entitled to receive,” Davis said. “In the meantime, [the Defense Department] will work with the Army, the National Guard Bureau and the California Army National Guard and others to strengthen efforts to respond to this situation.”

At least some of the California cases, first reported by the Los Angeles Times on Saturday, tie to a criminal investigation in which thousands of soldiers received improper bonuses and at least one soldier, Master Sgt. Toni Jaffe, pleaded guilty in 2011 to filing false claims while serving as incentive manager for the California Army National Guard. But the Pentagon also acknowledges that similar cases exist elsewhere.

The mounting frustration comes despite significant effort by the California Army National Guard to stop the collection from happening, said. Maj. Gen. Matthew Beevers, the force’s No. 2 officer. After the fraud cases were uncovered, the force ran a broad audit of more than 30,000 records beginning in 2011 in an effort to not only determine with bonuses were paid improperly, but which soldiers could keep theirs, he said.

By running the audit, the California Guard was able to allow to prevent the cases of about 4,000 soldiers who received a combined $37.2 million falling into collection, Beevers said. But about 10,000 soldiers received a combined $30 million that was not properly authorized. The audit also led to one general and two colonels being removed from their jobs, and administrative punishments for dozens of soldiers, Beevers said.

Guard leaders reached out to Congress in 2014 in an effort to pass legislation that would have provided a waiver for all affected soldiers. The effort stalled on Capitol Hill, however, leaving soldiers affected where they are now, Beevers said.

“It’s important to note that we’ve kind of led the way in trying to solve this,” the general said.

Davis said the Defense Department has the authority to waive individual cases after a review by an organization known as the Defense Office of Hearings and Appeals (DOHA). The office, however, does not have the authority to waive all cases of a similar nature at one time, and it can take months for a service member to schedule a hearing.

Davis said that in some cases, service members will be able to seek waivers through the appeal system that presently exists. In others, the Defense Department may need to work with Congress to change existing laws that define how repayments are required and reviewed, he said.

“I think we always know the importance of keeping faith with our people,” Davis said. “People who volunteer to serve in the armed forces do so at great sacrifice to their own personal lives and to their families, and we want to keep faith with them. This has our attention, and we want to make sure we’re doing everything we can within the boundaries of the law to help our people.”

The California cases have attracted the attention of Congress. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R.-Calif.) said in a statement Monday that it is “disgraceful” that service members face the prospect of repaying money they were offered.

“Our military heroes should not shoulder the burden of military recruiters’ faults from over a decade ago,” McCarthy said. “They should not owe for what was promised during a difficult time in our country. Rather, we are the ones who owe a debt for the great sacrifices our heroes have made — some of whom unfortunately paid the ultimate sacrifice.”

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R.-Calif.) said in a letter sent to Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter on Sunday that the Pentagon asking for the money back was “disgraceful and insulting,” and requested that Carter intervene directly.

“I find it difficult to believe that either you or your leadership team was aware that such a boneheaded decision was made to demand repayment — and I ask that you utilize your authority to influence a solution, including a possible legislative fix if deemed necessary, that’s in the best interests of the individuals and families impacted,” Hunter wrote.

Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) added that she was “shocked by the actions of the Pentagon and the California National Guard,” and that she considers it unacceptable to “hold these brave men and women accountable for the mistakes of their superiors.”

Beevers said the effort to solve the issue has been reinvigorated since media attention on the issue was raised over the weekend. McCarthy has raised interest in sponsoring new legislation to get the soldiers relief, the general said.

Davis said there are parallels between the California cases and others that were resolved in June in which members of the Pentagon’s civilian bomb squad could have been required to pay back up to $173,000 each that the Defense Department determined they were erroneously paid since 2008. The decision was announced shortly after a Washington Post article detailed the hardships that members of the unit faced.

In those cases, bomb squad members were recruited with the promise of receiving a 25 percent salary boost in hazardous-duty pay. A Pentagon agency later determined that the members were not eligible for the incentive, after all. The unit still exists, but now includes just a handful of members and has been unable to fill existing holes in its staff as employees leave for other jobs.

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