Another “Obscene” Veterans Scandal
Buchanan Tells Pentagon “BACK OFF!”
WASHINGTON — In a letter sent today to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Congressman Vern Buchanan said it was “obscene” to force thousands of veterans to repay enlistment bonuses issued a decade ago when the Pentagon needed troops for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Buchanan said it was no fault of the soldiers if the government later realized it made a mistake in calculating eligibility for bonuses and other incentives.
“Forcing innocent soldiers and veterans to repay these funds 10 years after they went to war on the nation’s behalf is obscene and unjustified,” Buchanan wrote. “The Pentagon needs to back off and leave them alone.”
Buchanan’s letter arrives after nearly 10,000 California National Guard soldiers – many of whom served multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan – were ordered by the DOD to return their enlistment bonuses and student loan repayments of $15,000 or more, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Buchanan also requested that the Secretary provide specific information on whether any Florida service members have received similar orders and on steps the department is taking to rectify the situation. The Pentagon has acknowledged that California may not be the only state where the recoupment efforts are occurring. Laura Ochoa, a Pentagon spokeswoman, on Monday said “there may be other states involved,” according to the Times.
Buchanan said he was frustrated the Pentagon was unaware of the true scope of the issue. “We need accurate information to ensure that service members from other states – particularly Florida – have not been subject to this outrageous abuse.”
The Florida National Guard is one of the largest state Guard organizations in the country with more than 11,600 soldiers and airmen.
During 2006 and 2007, the California National Guard encouraged soldiers to stay in the service by offering up front re-enlistment bonuses and student loan repayments. The incentives were part of a federal program run by the National Guard Bureau and the U.S. Army that was meant to boost the number of U.S. troops as the country continued its involvement in the post-9/11 wars.
Federal investigators later discovered that millions of dollars were mistakenly given to California National Guard soldiers who did not qualify.
Since then, current and retired soldiers have been told by the Pentagon to repay some or all of their bonuses. If the soldiers refuse to give back their bonuses, they face interest charges, wage garnishments and tax liens, according to the Times.
The California National Guard said they do not have the authority to unilaterally waive the debts in a statement Monday.
“This policy inflicts financial stress on our nation’s heroes, erodes trust in the military and sets a dangerous precedent,” Buchanan wrote. “These soldiers left their families, fought overseas for days on end and some returned home with physical and invisible injuries. They should not be punished for a mistake they did not make.”
While Buchanan was encouraged by Carter’s remarks that the department is looking into the problem, the Congressman said he’s hopeful the Pentagon will “keep its promise to these service members.”
Several veterans service organizations have voiced their opposition to the Pentagon’s recoupment efforts, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
Full text of the letter can be found below:
October 26, 2016
The Honorable Ashton B. Carter
Secretary of Defense
U.S. Department of Defense
1000 Defense Pentagon
Washington, DC 20301-1000
Dear Secretary Carter:
I write to express my deep concern regarding recent reports of the Pentagon ordering thousands of veterans, many of whom have served multiple combat tours, to return re-enlistment bonuses and student loans repayments awarded to them nearly a decade ago.
It is particularly egregious that, as reported by the Los Angeles Times, the improper payment of these bonuses, some totaling more than $15,000, was due to mismanagement by National Guard officials – not malfeasance on the part of the brave men and women who protect our country.
Forcing innocent soldiers and veterans to repay these funds 10 years after they went to war on the nation’s behalf is obscene and unjustified. The Pentagon needs to back off and leave them alone. They did their part and answered our nation’s call to serve at a time when we needed them most.
I am also frustrated by reports that the Pentagon is unaware of the true scope of this issue, and that your department has acknowledged Guardsmen from other states may also be facing similar orders to return this money.
While the California National Guard has been the subject of investigations, we need accurate information to ensure that service members from other states – particularly Florida – have not been subject to this outrageous abuse. The Florida National Guard is one of the largest state Guard organizations in the country with more than 11,600 soldiers and airmen.
To that end, I respectfully request that your office (1) identify any instances of Florida service members who are or have been subject to bonus recoupment proceedings due to the mistakes of Defense Department officials and (2) describe steps that the Defense Department is taking to rectify this situation, both nationally and with respect to Florida.
I’m hopeful the Pentagon will reverse course on this reprehensible demand and keep its promise to these service members. This policy inflicts financial stress on our nation’s heroes, erodes trust in the military and sets a dangerous precedent. These soldiers left their families, fought overseas for days on end and some returned home with physical and invisible injuries. They should not be punished for a mistake they did not make.
Thank you for your assistance in this matter, and I look forward to your response.
Member of Congress