Congress eyeing law to absolve National Guard from repaying bonuses
By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 27, 2016
WASHINGTON – Support was building on Capitol Hill on Thursday for a new law that could absolve some Army National Guard troops from repaying re-enlistment bonuses doled out during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
The top Republican and Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee said they are hoping to permanently protect troops and veterans from the National Guard’s controversial effort to collect the bonuses by passing legislation in the coming weeks as part of the annual defense budget.
A group of more than 100 House members – mostly Democrats – also sent a letter to the chamber’s leadership asking they move quickly to pass a law giving troops some relief.
After days of public outcry, the Pentagon on Wednesday temporarily halted the collection of the bonus payments of $15,000 or more and some education benefits from National Guard troops in California. Nearly 10,000 soldiers and veterans there could be affected.
However, the collections could resume in January when the Pentagon completes a review. The bonus issue also affects soldiers in other states. The Pentagon said Wednesday there are “dozens” of more cases outside of California but the National Guard had not released its figures as of Thursday morning.
“The servicemembers and families who received bonuses in good faith deserve to know they will be made whole, that the problem will be solved, and that those responsible will held accountable,” Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, Armed Services chairman, and Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the panel’s ranking Democrat, said in a joint statement. “Congress must act to give them the peace of mind they have earned.”
The group of House lawmakers made a similar plea in their letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi – and acknowledged the scandal could expand outside of California.
“Although the full scale of this matter is still unclear, the National Guard Bureau has acknowledged that overpayments have occurred in every state during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the group wrote. “Any permanent solution should also make servicemembers whole who have already repaid the department.”
The bonuses and incentives under consideration in California are worth about $40-$50 million and were given out beginning in 2005 to boost troop numbers during the wars.
Any legislative fix will also require support in the Senate.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, called the Pentagon freeze “long overdue” but said the situation is still unacceptable.
“Thousands of servicemembers and their families, whose lives have been disrupted through no fault of their own, are still waiting for certainty that this problem will be fixed,” McCain said in a prepared statement.
He said he would work with the Senate on possible solutions. McCain sponsored legislation last year that banned the National Guard and other services from “paid patriotism” troop tributes at professional sporting events, which was the latest in a string of recruiting scandals for the service.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Wednesday that the Pentagon is conducting a review of the Army National Guard bonuses that it expects to complete by January, and is aiming to resolve all of the California bonus and education benefit cases by July.
The temporary freeze did not satisfy some veteran organizations. Brian Duffy, national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said the Pentagon move “doesn’t go deep enough.”
Staff Sgt. Jason Hangaard, right, a CH-47 Chinook helicopter crew chief from Ripon, Calif., with the California Army National Guard's Company B, 1st Battalion, 126th Aviation Regiment, watches as infantry soldiers of Company B, 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, from Fort Hood, Texas, run off the aircraft during a training mission at Fort Hood, Texas.