Oct. 25 2016 06:36 PM

Hands off enlistment bonuses of soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan

    Photo courtesy of Darrell Issa

    Dumb decisions and poor choices are timeless. The Hindenburg was filled with hydrogen. There was New Coke. The whisper of hidden weapons of mass destruction led to the Iraq War. The Chargers drafted Ryan Leaf. Twelve publishers turned down JK Rowling. Now joining the pantheon of boneheaded stupidity of epic proportion: the Pentagon's decision to claw back enlistment bonuses from United States veterans.

    The California National Guard has unconscionably been asking troops to repay enlistment bonuses they received for re-upping in 2006 to 2008 to serve and fight in Iraq or Afghanistan. Seems those bonuses—most of which were paid upfront in amounts in the ballpark of $15,000—were later deemed wrongful and/or excessive by the Pentagon.

    Deciding not to exercise common sense or decency and just ask to be allowed to forgive the debt, the Pentagon committed a felony stupid act and began garnishing wages from some veterans, sometimes charging processing fees or threatening to assess interest fees. Men and women who risked their lives to defend our country were in some cases harassed into paying back money they'd been promised for their service.

    To be crystal clear, the service members did nothing wrong—all they did was accept the incentives they were offered. It later came to light that thousands of vets were not eligible for these bonuses. Only soldiers with specific skills—civil affairs, intelligence, etc.—were supposed to be targeted for re-enlistment bonuses.

    What happened? Investigators discovered widespread fraud within the California Guard. An incentive manager, Master Sgt. Toni Jaffee, pleaded guilty to filing false claims totaling $15.2 million, according to the Department of Justice. Jaffee was sentenced to serve 30 months in federal prison.

    So what's to happen now to the National Guard members who unwittingly took the money and fulfilled their six-year commitments?

    If sanity prevails, recollection of the bonuses will cease and the "debt" will be forgiven.

    However, the California National Guard said it can't ignore the debt. "The bonus audit and recoupment process is a federal program governed and adjudicated by the National Guard Bureau and the Department of the Army," it said in a statement. "The California National Guard does not have the authority to unilaterally waive these debts...However, the California National Guard welcomes any law passed by Congress to waive these debts."

    On Monday, this issue became something of a hot button in the political race between Rep. Darrell Issa, the Republican incumbent Congressman representing North County's 49th District, and Democratic challenger Col. Doug Applegate, who served in combat in Ramadi, Baghdad and Fallujah.

    "This is what happens when politicians spend more time fighting with each other than solving problems," Applegate said in a statement released Monday. "Instead of picking partisan fights, Darrell Issa should have been fighting for our veterans."

    Applegate said the California National Guard and Department of Defense should halt collections and Congress should immediately vote on legislation to correct the situation.

    "As a retired Marine Colonel, I understand the struggles our veterans face upon return to civilian life," he said. "These men and women put their lives on the line to serve our country, and they earned and deserved these payments. It's outrageous that veterans are the ones who are suffering because of clerical errors made by others."

    State lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle, including Issa, have jumped on the Pentagon to rescind orders to collect the bonuses from as many as 10,000 former National Guardsmen.

    "This is a debt that veterans who enlisted and went to war in the service of our country simply do not deserve," wrote Issa, in an Oct. 24 letter to Department of Defense Secretary Ash Carter. "Although California Guard officials have pledged to work with veterans that wish to file appeals to the National Guard Bureau and the Army Board for Correction of Military Records to clear these debts, this is insufficient."

    Issa and others have said when Congress returns in November they will introduce language in the National Defense Authorization Act that halts retrieval of these debts.

    ABC News reported that the California National Guard did send Congress a letter about this mess two years ago, but that there was no follow up. Seriously, did nobody in the decision-making chain see this public relations nightmare in the making?

    In comparison, it's pretty dumb to receive classified emails on a private server, or get into a perverted locker room chat with Billy Bush while wearing a hot mic. But reaching into the bank accounts of soldiers who stood in harm's way for this country? We're trying to get homeless veterans off the streets, not put them there. Get out the gold-plated dunce cap. It's time to crown the king of stupid.

    UPDATE: On Wednesday, Oct. 26, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said he is suspending "all efforts to collect reimbursements" from members of the California National Guard.

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