Pentagon waives reimbursement of more than $190 million to members of the California National Guard

The Department of Defense will let members of the California National Guard keep more than $190 million in disputed enlistment bonuses and other payments — far more than previously acknowledged — after the Army spent six years trying to recover money from veterans who had served in the height of Iraq. and the wars in Afghanistan.

In total, reimbursements were canceled for 17,092 California Guard soldiers who received what was later deemed questionable, according to a Department of Defense report obtained by The Times. Those who have already repaid their premiums are reimbursed.

The report, which was sent to the House and Senate Armed Services Committees this month, concludes that the overwhelming majority of California Guard soldiers did nothing wrong by accepting $15,000 bonuses at $80,000 each. Only 393 soldiers were ordered to return the money, mostly due to disciplinary or criminal behavior.

The sweeping pardon represents a near-total retreat from the Pentagon and California Guard, who led the aggressive recovery effort against thousands of military veterans – some of whom were injured in combat – and who have yet to publicly apologize. close to them.

The California Guard used tax liens, wage garnishments and other heavy-handed tactics to try to recoup bonuses it paid to soldiers primarily for enlisting or re-enlisting between 2004 and 2010, a time when the Pentagon desperately needed troops he could send to war.

The scandal offers a grim perspective on the Pentagon’s use of large cash inducements to fill its all-volunteer force during the longest period of warfare in the nation’s history.

“The overwhelming majority” of cases “were resolved in favor of the individual soldier,” concludes the 26-page report from the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness. “In these cases, the soldier received a full relief allowance.”

Many waivers were granted because the records “lacked adequate documentation” or because “the soldier had deployed” to a combat zone, had “completed his service” or “should not have known he was not eligible”. for a bonus,” the report said.

The report also provided exceptions if a soldier who earned a bounty “was deceased, a recipient of Purple Heart, receiving combat disability compensation” or met other conditions.

Last October, The Times first revealed the California Guard’s aggressive campaign require nearly 17,500 veterans to repay their premiums.

In response, then-Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter suspended the recovery effort. Two months later, Congress passed legislation giving the Department of Defense until July 30 to review each case with the goal of canceling debts unless the soldier “knows or reasonably ought to have known” that he was not eligible for the bonus.

Pentagon officials said at the time they did not know how much money was involved, although they estimated it could be in the tens of millions of dollars. The total was much higher.

According to the report, the California Guard paid more than $233 million in bounties and student loan repayments to meet its enlistment goals from 2004 to 2015.

For most of this time, the California Guard relied on a single enlisted soldier, Staff Sgt. Toni Jaffe, to issue the bonuses with virtually no control. Jaffe later said she faced intense pressure from superiors to approve payments to meet enlistment goals.

After a federal and state investigation, Jaffe pleaded guilty in 2011 to charges of approving payments she knew were fraudulent and served 30 months in prison. The Guard simultaneously launched its aggressive recovery effort, targeting soldiers it believed were ineligible for bounties, or whose records lacked proper documentation.

The Times found that most soldiers accepted the money in good faith, served honorably, and fulfilled their enlistment contracts, often serving in war zones.

They were ordered to repay their bonuses years later. Many had left the military and spent the money long ago to buy houses, cars and other expenses.

The Pentagon report supported these findings.

He said “17,092 of those cases – the overwhelming majority – were resolved in favor of the individual soldier”. In another 393 cases, he said, the available evidence did not support a full award of redress.

Most of the latter were condemned to reimburse their bonus because they had not fulfilled their enlistment contract, either because they were absent without leave or because they were expelled from the service because of drug abuse or other disciplinary issues.

“These cases typically involved a soldier receiving an inducement in exchange for enlistment of a certain duration, which was then cut short by the soldier’s own misconduct – most commonly absence without leave or drug addiction,” indicates the report.

Although Congress ordered the Pentagon to complete the review last month, appeals are pending for 191 of those soldiers, according to the report. Another 202 have exhausted their appeals and have refunded the money or have yet to do so.

Two soldiers who were ordered to return the money after their cases were reviewed were granted full pardons on appeal, according to the report.

The report provides only a brief overview of the tactics used by the Pentagon to go after soldiers it had previously accused of improperly taking money. Many soldiers ordered to repay the large sums were hit with interest charges, wage garnishments, and tax liens if they refused or could not.

After the scandal came to light last fall, the Defense Finance Accounting Service, the departmental unit responsible for debt collection, “removed existing debt collection actions from its own accounts,” the report said.

The bureau also “requested that the Treasury Department, private debt collection agencies, and credit bureaus immediately remove from their databases all collection records and other adverse information regarding these debts,” the bureau said. report.

The California Guard did not respond to a request for comment.

The report shows that $80.9 million of the questionable bonuses went to newly recruited soldiers, while $73.5 million went to soldiers already in uniform. Many said they were summoned to mass meetings and promised money if they re-enlisted for another six years.

Another $3.27 million in recruiting bonuses went to officers.

In response to the bounty scandal, the National Guard has implemented new computer software to ensure bonuses are not distributed inappropriately, and California has adopted the system, according to the report.

Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Turlock), who helped craft the legislative language that ordered the Pentagon to review all cases by this month, said he doubts the military acted without help from Congress.

“It would not have taken an act of Congress to have the [Defense Department] admit their mistake and fulfill the contracts made with our California National Guard,” Denham said. “The men and women who wear the garb of this nation deserve the security of knowing that the country they are sworn to protect will protect them at the end of their service.”

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Twitter: @davidcloudLAT

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