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Editorial: Guard must ease hardship of soldiers caught in incentives scandal

It’s not their fault that fellow California National Guard members committed fraud to boost enlistment numbers.

But they’re also being punished. Their paychecks are being docked, and their appeals are disappearing into the military bureaucracy.

As The Bee’s Charles Piller laid out Monday, about 120 enlisted soldiers or officers have been implicated in wrongdoing for improper bonuses and student loan repayments.

The collateral damage, however, is much wider. About 17,000 California Guard soldiers, including some who served in Iraq or Afghanistan, are being swept up in the investigation. About $13 million has been targeted for collection, but that total is expected to grow to $47 million as the audits are completed over the next two years.

Of 4,700 audits done by mid-August, 1,800 cases were cleared of any problems, nearly 470 payments were found to have gone to ineligible soldiers, and more than 2,400 cases could be appealed. While soldiers have won more than half of appeals, appeals are piling up in the California Guard’s auditing office, or bogging down in the National Guard Bureau, which is also getting swamped by similar cases from other states.

It was Piller’s 2010 investigation that uncovered the corruption in the incentive program. It led to federal prison for a former manager, probation for three captains and, combined with other misbehavior disclosed by The Bee, a housecleaning in the leadership ranks.

The Guard is in a tough spot as it tries to get past this scandal. It can’t allow soldiers to keep money they shouldn’t have received in the first place. But it needs to do all it can to ease hardship on families.

While the policy is to garnish no more than 20 percent of wages, requests for lower deductions are generally granted, particularly if a soldier is deployed, Guard officials told The Bee’s editorial board. Officials must work through those requests as quickly as possible. They also must do better at expediting appeals by soldiers. The National Guard Bureau did not respond to queries Tuesday about how it’s trying to ease the bottleneck.

The Guard’s own interests are at stake. The situation is already starting to hurt morale and reduce re-enlistments, Adjutant General David Baldwin told Piller.

Dealing with individual cases quickly and fairly would go a long way to repairing any damage and putting this sordid chapter in the past.