Congressional members from California were quick to call out the Pentagon on Monday for ordering military veterans to give back benefits they received a decade ago as reenlistment incentives during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The swell in outrage follows a report Friday by The Los Angeles Times that outlined hardships endured by some of the nearly 10,000 current and retired soldiers in the California National Guard who have been affected by the mismanaged funds. Some soldiers deemed ineligible after-the-fact have been ordered to give back tens of thousands of dollars or face debt collection.
While it remains unclear whether Congress will manage to settle on the particulars of a legislative fix to this problem, the shared sense of outrage expressed by lawmakers could set the stage for a show of bipartisan collaboration in the final months of what has been a particularly divisive election year.
"This is a debt that veterans who enlisted and went to war in the service of our country simply do not deserve," US Rep. Darrell Issa (R) of California, wrote Monday in a letter to US Defense Secretary Ash Carter, urging him to "immediately halt the retrieval of these debts."
Representative Issa argued that individual service members should not be held liable for inappropriate promises made by military recruiters. He called on Congress to permanently resolve the matter with an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) when lawmakers reconvene next month.
"It is unconscionable that the burden of bureaucratic malfeasance and corruption over a decade ago is being borne by heroes who stepped forward, put themselves in harm's way and fought to keep our nation safe," Issa wrote in a separate letter to Armed Services committee leaders in the House and Senate.
Both the Republican chairman and Democratic ranking member of the House Armed Services committee are "deeply concerned" by the report, so they have directed staffers to work with the Department of Defense, the Army, and the National Guard to find a way to promptly solve this problem, a committee spokesman said Monday.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D) of California announced Monday that he, too, had begun working on a legislative remedy.
Although improper incentive payments – or bonuses – have occurred in every state, California is now the focus because its force is sizable and its past recruiters have been particularly generous.
Revelations of poor management and fraud emerged after the Pentagon's retention program budget ballooned between 2000 and 2008, as NPR reported:
A scandal over the California Guard's use of bonus money was first unearthed in 2010, when the Sacramento Bee reported that its incentive program had misspent as much as $100 million. The program's one-time leader, former master sergeant Toni Jaffe, was later sentenced to 30 months in prison, after pleading guilty to making $15 million in false claims.
When it was first discovered, that scandal was deemed "war profiteering" and was said to have benefited Guard members who hadn't logged any combat duty; high-ranking officers were mentioned. But in the years since, lower-ranking service members have complained about garnished checks and a prolonged review process, saying they've done nothing wrong.
About three-quarters of the soldiers who owe bonuses back to the government have refused to cooperate or simply failed to respond to letters, said Col. Michael Piazzoni, the California Guard officer who oversaw the audits, the Times reported Sunday. Only 1,200 service members have appealed their debts to the Pentagon, with about half of them securing debt reductions.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCathy, a Republican, pledged Sunday that the House would launch an investigation.
"Our military heroes should not shoulder the burden of military recruiters' faults from over a decade ago," Representative McCarthy said in a statement. "They should not owe for what was promised during a difficult time in our country."
Democrats joined in the indignation, signaling the possibility of cross-the-aisle collaboration.
"The solution to this ridiculous situation is in an act of Congress," Calif. Rep. Mark Takano, a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said.
Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D) of California said she is "shocked" by the Pentagon's reneging on the bonuses already paid out.
"It is unacceptable to hold these brave men and women accountable for the mistakes of their superiors," Representative Sanchez said in a statement.
Following the story from The Los Angeles Times, the California National Guard issued a statement clarifying that the program in question is managed at the federal level.
"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," the statement said.
For the time being, state-level Guard officials have established an incentives assistance center to advocate on behalf of the soldiers.
"Without this initiative 100 percent of the soldiers would have to pay back 100 percent of the money," the statement added. "It is our intent to continue working with all parties involved to further advocate for our soldiers."
The LA Times report struck a nerve with Americans, who took to social media with their outrage and launched no fewer than eight separate online petitions for the government to take action. The Obama administration has long agreed to formally respond within 60 days to any petitions on WhiteHouse.gov that garner 100,000 signatures or more within 30 days. A petition posted Friday had almost 9,000 signatories as of Monday afternoon.
"The soldiers trusted their government that they were rightfully receiving these bonuses. Some are now going through extreme amounts of stress and hardship in order to pay back the bonus," the description states. "This petition respectfully requests that these soldiers be allowed to keep the money and any monies they have payed back be restored to them."
Robert Richmond, one of the veterans quoted in the Times' report, posted a petition of his own – months ago – on Change.org, with a photo of a bloody vest belonging to a friend who was injured while serving in Afghanistan.
"They can't erase the things I have done or seen, or erase my injuries. How can they just take the money back without a judgment and without my permission," Mr. Richmond wrote. His petition, which is ineligible for the Obama administration's guaranteed respond, had garnered more than 41,000 signatures by Monday afternoon.