The enlistment bonus mess
The California National Guard paid tens of millions of dollars in bonus to troops in order to get them to re-enlist. Now, it wants the money back, saying the bonuses should never have been given in the first place. The result? Pandemonium:
The military has long paid re-enlistment bonuses and given other incentives, like repayment of college loans, to keep highly trained and desirable personnel in the service. The practice accelerated during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The budget for re-enlistment incentives nearly doubled between 2000 and 2008 to $1.4 billion according to the RAND Corporation.
During that time, the California Guard held seminars where troops filed through an assembly line-style re-enlistment process. The re-enlistments was overseen by a master sergeant named Toni L. Jaffe of Citrus Heights, Calif., who lavished troops with bonuses and forgiveness of student loans. A federal inquiry in 2010 estimated that as much as $100 million in improper bonuses might have been paid. The Guard says that total is closer to $70 million. Ms. Jaffe, who has since left the military, pleaded guilty in 2012 to approving more than $15 million in fraudulent claims.
The case sparked a detailed review of the re-enlistment program, with dozens of auditors combing through the 35,000 records.
“We did uncover about 100 people that were involved in outright fraud,” said Maj. Gen. Matthew P. Beevers, the deputy adjutant general of the California National Guard. “The challenge now is that the vast majority of the soldiers involved got improper bonuses because they relied, to their detriment, on people they thought knew what they were doing.”
“If I had a magic wand and could fix all this for the soldiers who thought they were being told the truth, I would do it, but I can’t do that,” General Beevers said. “It relies on action from Congress and the secretary of the Army.”
The California National Guard asked Congress to pass a bill erasing the debts in 2014, he said, but lawmakers balked at the cost. On Monday, General Beevers said several lawmakers had called and pledged their support for such a bill. “I’m more optimistic now than I have been since this started four and a half years ago.”
Pentagon officials declined to comment on Monday afternoon.
Many soldiers caught in the bonus debacle said they were unaware they would have to reimburse the Guard until years later, when they received collection letters.
One could chalk all this up to a bureaucratic SNAFU. But the key line in this this story in the Guard asked Congress to fix the problem two years ago...and Congress refused.
More often than not, Congress is at the root of many of the flaws, fumbles and outright foul-ups committed elsewhere in government. Congress can fix this problem -- and should, immediately. It is outrageous that men and women who served our country are now being dunned for accepting bonuses they had every right to believe were legally given.
We would expect those in Congress who balked at clearing up this mess in the first place will be among the loudest voices trying to fix it. Such is politics.