Editorials

The big break Congress is about to give California National Guard

Khatchig Khatchadourian, 26, a former California National Guard Arabic language interpreter who received an enlistment bonus, displays a photograph of himself taken in Iraq in 2010.
Khatchig Khatchadourian, 26, a former California National Guard Arabic language interpreter who received an enlistment bonus, displays a photograph of himself taken in Iraq in 2010. Los Angeles Times/TNS

In an all-too-rare case of quick, bipartisan action, Congress is about to protect California National Guard soldiers from having to give back enlistment bonuses.

Good. This was a slow-moving crisis that lawmakers should have resolved long ago, but better late than never.

House and Senate negotiators reached a deal on a provision in a defense policy bill filed Wednesday that stops the Pentagon from demanding repayments unless it can prove that soldiers knew or should have known they weren’t eligible for the money.

The House is expected to pass the bill on Friday, followed by the Senate next week.

The Sacramento Bee revealed the bonus scandal in 2010. The all-volunteer military needed Guard members to re-enlist to fight the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, so starting in 2001 it offered bonuses and student loan aid of $15,000 to $20,000. Some top officers, however, committed fraud to get bonuses. Eventually, the Pentagon concluded that about $100 million had been fraudulently or mistakenly paid out.

The Bee reported in 2013 that about 17,000 Guard members were being audited and that the repayment issue would only grow as more inquiries were finished. But it wasn’t until late October – the stretch drive of the election campaign and after national headlines about soldiers and veterans being forced to give back the money – that lawmakers jumped on the issue.

Elections tend to focus politicians’ minds, apparently. After veterans groups also raised a ruckus, Defense Secretary Ash Carter suspended collections of bonuses.

The provision makes that permanent and covers not only current and former California Guard members but the entire U.S. military. Importantly, it shifts the burden of proof to the Pentagon to prove to a review board that the bonus shouldn’t have been paid.

The provision mirrors a bill introduced by Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Adam Schiff of California, who issued a joint statement Wednesday. The bill’s passage will ensure that the Pentagon’s commitment “will be honored by the next administration, any money already repaid will be given back and that the Pentagon will help soldiers who face financial hardship fully recover from this ordeal,” Feinstein said.

That’s very good news for Guard members, and it’s the fair thing to do.

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