Lawmakers are right, but late, on enlistment bonuses

Kyle Reeves of Coulterville holding his son in 2013, after a year-long California National Guard deployment in Afghanistan.
Kyle Reeves of Coulterville holding his son in 2013, after a year-long California National Guard deployment in Afghanistan. Sacramento Bee file

By all means, Congress should tell the Pentagon to back off from taking back enlistment bonuses received by California National Guard soldiers who didn’t know the payments were unwarranted.

Lawmakers of both parties, in the Legislature as well as Congress, are calling for the payments to be forgiven, demanding investigations and falling all over themselves to express their outrage. “Dishonorable, despicable and shabby,” complains Republican Rep. Tom McClintock. “Injustice” and “madness,” says Democratic Rep. John Garamendi.

It is outrageous. Thousands of members of the California National Guard, the nation’s largest, deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks. Twenty-nine were killed and dozens injured. The soldiers are in this predicament through no fault of their own.

Yet, it’s so easy for politicians to stand up for veterans now, two weeks before Election Day.

Where were they three years ago when we and others warned about the looming crisis? And why hasn’t the problem been fixed by now?

The Sacramento Bee broke this story in a 2010 investigation. Our all-volunteer military was having trouble filling the ranks, so the California National Guard offered incentives, typically $15,000 to $20,000, to new enlistees and those who signed up again.

Where was the outrage three years ago when it was clear there was a looming crisis?

Unfortunately, some unscrupulous Guard officials gamed the system to enrich themselves. The ringleader went to federal prison after pleading guilty to fraud. Gov. Jerry Brown cleaned house at the Guard’s leadership.

In all, about $100 million was paid out between 2005 and 2010 in bonuses that were fraudulent or given out erroneously. In most cases, the soldiers receiving the payments had no idea they didn’t qualify or were getting too much. They used the money to go back to school, repay student loans, buy homes or just to pay the bills.

In 2013, The Bee reported that about 17,000 Guard soldiers were being audited and paychecks were starting to be docked to recoup illegal payments – and that the problem would mushroom as more audits were completed. So far, about $22 million has been recovered.

Then over the weekend, the Los Angeles Times reported that nearly 10,000 soldiers were being told to repay bonuses. This close to the election, it made national headlines. Politicians quickly pounced to score pre-election points with voters.

Garamendi, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee and is on the House-Senate conference committee working on the defense budget, says an amendment would stop the clawback unless the soldiers committed fraud, and would allow Guardsmen who have already started repayments to get a refund.

He rightly points out that the amount in question is trivial in the $600 billion budget, but that the principle is not: Soldiers should not pay the price for bureaucratic failures of accounting and oversight.

This is an easy call. If only there were similar bipartisan concern for veterans and agreement on tougher issues when it’s not campaign season.