No Excuse: Stop Shaking Down Veterans
When I read a report last week in The Los Angeles Times about the Pentagon demanding that California Army National Guard members repay reenlistment bonuses and student loan repayments earned as long as a decade ago, I wish I could say I was surprised. But as someone who has served in uniform and as a civilian in the Pentagon, I know that such injustices and betrayals of trust are far too common. These bonuses and loan repayments were given as part of retention and recruitment efforts during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, when our nation needed more soldiers. Earlier investigations found that about $20 million was improperly dispersed to some California guard officers and enlisted personnel. Now, the Pentagon is not only demanding these guardsmen and women repay the bonuses (even though for most it was through no fault of their own) but they are insisting on ten years’ worth of interest charges as well. Those who cannot make these payments could face wage garnishments and tax liens. Having already battled insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, now these men and women are locked in a struggle against a callous Pentagon bureaucracy.
Yes, the Pentagon needs to do its best serve as a responsible steward of taxpayer dollars, but it also has obligations to do right by those who served their country in uniform. The current policy holds these men and women responsible for something that was not their fault. Eager to boost retention and recruiting numbers, the Pentagon paid soldiers up front without first checking their eligibility. In at least some of the current cases, criminal actions played a role, as in the case of retired Master Sergeant Toni Jaffe who, along with others, submitted false claims for pay bonuses for ineligible personnel. Jaffe was sentenced to 30 months for those crimes. It is clearly wrong, however, for the Pentagon to recoup these funds from those who took them in good faith.
This is exactly the type of institutional betrayal that our senior civilian leaders have the obligation to defend against. The impact of this policy upon the soldiers — combat veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — is severe. Garnished wages can significantly reduce their paychecks, especially if their military service is a primary source of income. As reported, some of these men and women may now have to sell their homes and declare bankruptcy. Others are considering filing lawsuits to stop the repayment actions, which will increase the cost of this mistake even more. To their credit, many are paying the debts. Others, however, have reportedly “given up” in the face of rigid bureaucracy, even before exhausting their rights of appeal. The deputy commander of the California National Guard has stated that he would like to absolve these men and women of their debts, but he does not have the authority to do that. The California National Guard certainly needs to request National Guard Bureau assistance but this is a national problem potentially impacting servicemembers across 50 states and thus requires senior Pentagon leadership to step in to fix it.
Indeed, waiving the reimbursement requirement for a bureaucratic mistake is not without recent precedent. Just several months ago the Pentagon decided to forgive overpayments of upwards of $175,000 to Pentagon Force Protection agency bomb squad technicians. In some cases, these employees faced possible financial ruin after a determination that they were ineligible for hazardous duty pay that they had previously received for years of service. Likewise, in 2009, Pentagon bureaucrats and lawyers decided they did not have the legal authority to pay “hazardous duty” or other incentives to civilian highly qualified experts serving in designated combat zones like Iraq and Afghanistan — something they had been doing for years. The Army began a process to seek reimbursement of tens of thousands of dollars from each of these individuals — monies that had been taken in good faith — but eventually relented following meetings with those impacted along with a bit of Congressional intervention.
There is no reason the Pentagon cannot do right by our uniformed servicemembers. The resolution would cost the Department of Defense between $7 million and $20 million — not a heavy lift given the size of the defense budget. Secretary of Defense Carter should immediately take ownership and direct the secretary of the Army and the chief of the National Guard Bureau to quickly implement a plan for both debt forgiveness and repayment for those who paid back the incentives they took in good faith.
No secretary of defense will be able to prevent every fraudulent and criminal act, but there is room for more efficient and effective processes. Perhaps more importantly, this also betrays a need for a change in the Defense Department’s culture to value people — like our senior leaders say they do — rather than unfeeling bureaucratic processes that led to a shakedown of military personnel and veterans for money they accepted in good faith. There is no reason that this problem should have festered for three years. Our senior leaders must do better. Our military service members and frontline civilians already sacrifice a great deal when doing battle with our nation’s foes. They should not have to do battle with bureaucracy.
Mark R. Jacobson is currently a non-Resident Senior Fellow at Salve Regina University’s Pell Center for International Affairs and a former senior advisor to the Secretaries of Defense and Navy. He has served in Afghanistan as both a Department of Defense civilian and Navy reservist.