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California legislators seek to halt bonus repayments
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California Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate have introduced legislation that would put a halt to the forced repayments of enlistment bonuses and student loan payments given to some California National Guard soldiers.

In October the Los Angeles Times first reported about the Pentagon ordering repayment of enlistment bonuses and student loan payments given to about 9,700 California National Guard soldiers during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to fulfill service quotas. Years after the service was completed audits revealed that some soldiers were overpaid and others were ineligible for the bonuses. In some cases National Guard recruiters were prosecuted and convicted for fraud and other crimes related to fraudulent enlistment bonuses.

The Pentagon ordered that thousands of soldiers repay their enlistment bonuses and student loan payments. If soldiers refused to pay they could be facing tax liens, wage garnishment and rising interest. On average, the soldiers were being told they had to repay debts of $10,000 or more. In one case, Manteca resident Chris Van Meter, an Army Captain who received a Purple Heart for an injury he sustained during his service in the Iraq War, had to repay $46,000 in bonuses and student loan payments when the Pentagon said he was erroneously given the money.

On Oct. 26 the Pentagon suspended the repayment program in the wake of public outcry and put an appeals process in place until a long-term solution could be achieved. The Pentagon has said that to forgive all the debt would amount to tens of millions of dollars and would hamper ongoing efforts to eliminate wasteful spending in the military.

“While the DOD has stopped the harassment, much more needs to be done, and it is important that we resolve this issue under the current administration where it all started. Our veterans deserve a secure financial future,” said U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Turlock), one of the legislators to introduce bills to put a halt to the practice.

According to the Pentagon, almost 10,000 members of the Army National Guard may have received improper benefits starting in 2004, during George W. Bush’s presidency and continuing until 2010, into President Barack Obama’s administration.

“The Pentagon has shown a willingness to resolve this issue on its own, but we need to ensure these efforts won’t lapse under a new president,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein, who also introduced legislature into the Senate. “We want to reassure the affected service members that our government stands by its commitments and they will not be punished for the actions of others."

In the Democrat’s version the bill would prevent the Army from recouping those funds from any service members who unknowingly received them during that time period. It also requires the Army to reimburse any soldier who has already repaid the government, including interest, and to notify credit agencies that any debt previously reported was invalid.

The bill would not cover National Guard members who engaged in fraud or misrepresentation.

The bill was introduced in the Senate by Sens. Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and in the House by Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank).

"Our bill would permanently halt recoupment actions and ensure that those who already paid back their bonuses are repaid with interest,” Boxer said. “And most importantly, it would ensure that the Department of Defense helps to make these service members financially whole again. Our soldiers and their families should not be responsible for the mistakes and illegal behavior of others. I look forward to working with my colleagues to ensure this financial burden does not weigh on our military families, who have already sacrificed so much.”

On the Republican side, Denham and Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona) cosponsored the Veterans Earned Their Bonus Act in the House.

The VET Bonus Act will ensure that receipt of bonus money from CalGuard from 2004 to 2010 is not subject to repayment to the Department of Defense, unless a vet committed fraud. It also requires the DOD to notify credit agencies that any debt previously reported was never valid. Additionally, repayments already paid will be returned to the veteran, plus interest allowed under current laws. The bill also provides financial assistance to those veterans who incurred further financial hardship.

“The men and women who bravely served or are still serving this country in our armed forces should not be forced to repay anything they received in good faith and earned through their blood, sweat and sacrifice,” said Denham. “Unfortunately, the Pentagon has been going after these soldiers even though the contract for service was signed and fulfilled. To hold them liable for a contract that was presented by an agent of the U.S. Army, as much as a decade later, is unjust. This legislation seeks to right these wrongs and hold the administration accountable for the damage it has caused.”

Either bill could be approved as early as next week.