California National Guard. Photo via calguard.ca.gov
California National Guard. Photo via calguard.ca.gov

Three Riverside County congressional representatives Friday voted in support of legislation that will potentially relieve several thousand California National Guard troops from having to repay re-enlistment bonuses to which they allegedly weren’t entitled, but possibly received due to negligence or fraud.

Reps. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, Duncan Hunter, R-Temecula, and Raul Ruiz, D-Palm Springs, all backed the National Defense Authorization Act, which cleared the House of Representatives in a 375 to 34 vote, with 25 abstentions.

The NDAA bill, which contains numerous appropriations for U.S. Armed Forces personnel, equipment and operations, will be taken up by the U.S. Senate next week. It’s expected to pass by a wide margin.

“Our service members deserve the peace of mind that this legislation will provide them,” Calvert said. “The misguided effort to collect these bonus payments was wrong from the start, so I’m pleased Congress has been able to come together in a bipartisan way and find a solution.”

Rep. Mark Takano, D-Riverside, was among opponents to the act, citing its lack of controls over spending on overseas military campaigns.

“The NDAA continues the unacceptable practice of using budget gimmicks to pay for an evolving war that Congress has not appropriately debated or authorized,” Takano told City News Service.

“While I strongly support the solution it includes for the California National Guard, I cannot vote for legislation that allows Congress to continue to shirk its responsibility to hold a substantive discussion and a vote on our combat operations around the world.”

One of the provisions in the NDAA that directly addresses the California National Guard overpayments is a requirement that the secretary of defense conduct a review of all bonuses disbursed between Jan. 1, 2004, and last Dec. 31.

That process is supposed to be completed by July 30. The House wrote in allowances for the waiver of repayments — even if it’s determined that Guardsmen received re-enlistment bonuses when they were aware they shouldn’t have. Troops who have already repaid some or all of their bonuses may be entitled to refunds from the government if there’s a finding that they did not knowingly take unauthorized funds.

There’s also a stipulation that if the Defense Finance & Accounting Service created a financial hardship by demanding repayments, the Pentagon may provide various forms of relief.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter in October ordered DFAS to stop collections until a process could be established whereby those soldiers on the hook for reimbursements received fair and equitable treatment” with “as little burden as possible” placed on them.

He said about 2,000 soldiers had been asked to “repay erroneous payments.”

Troops’ predicaments were featured in a Los Angeles Times expose in mid- October. According to its findings, a 2010 military investigation revealed that in 2006 and 2007, National Guard personnel had been improperly paid up to $15,000 in up-front re-enlistment bonuses.

Pentagon officials said the funds were distributed under minimal scrutiny and stemmed, in part, from a drive to meet military recruitment goals. Three officers and a master sergeant were also convicted of fraud for mishandling paperwork tied to incentive payments, according to the Times.

Audits traced the improper payments, and the recipients were sent bills, which have required some veterans to take out second mortgages and otherwise dig deep to pay.

— City News Service

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