Buchanan to Pentagon: “Apologize and Return The Money”
Congressman Told Florida Vets Not Affected (Yet)
WASHINGTON — Congressman Vern Buchanan today said the Pentagon should stop forcing thousands of veterans to return enlistment bonuses, give back any money collected so far and apologize for their obscene money grab.
Nearly 10,000 California National Guard soldiers – many of whom served multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan – were ordered by the Pentagon to return their enlistment bonuses and student loan repayments, averaging $15,000 or more, according to the Los Angeles Times. The recoupment effort has taken more than $22 million from soldiers so far, according to the Times.
“The Pentagon needs to apologize to these veterans and return their money,” Buchanan said. “There is no middle ground on this issue. The government needs to tell veterans it will permanently — not temporarily — end its outrageous attempt to collect nlistment bonuses from a decade ago.”
Buchanan’s office was told by Florida National Guard officials today that an internal audit failed to find any Florida vets affected yet.
The Congressman, who served six years in the Michigan Air National Guard, 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.
“For many soldiers, this money means the difference between paying the mortgage, owning a car and putting food on the table,” he said. “The Pentagon wastes billions of dollars on defective weapons systems but it can’t help our veterans?”
Buchanan yesterday wrote to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and called for the Pentagon to back off their recoupment efforts. “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 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. Soldiers in Virginia are now among the affected. A National Guard Bureau spokeswoman said on Wednesday, “We understand other states may have been affected but are pending verification of which ones.”
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.