WASHINGTON (AP) — Thousands of California National Guard troops will not have to repay enlistment bonuses and benefits they received a decade after they signed up to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a deal between House and Senate negotiators.
The agreement is included in a must-pass defense policy bill filed Wednesday and awaiting an expected House vote Friday, followed by action in the Senate next week.
The Pentagon had demanded the money after audits revealed overpayments by the Guard under pressure to fill ranks and hit enlistment goals. But lawmakers are ordering the Pentagon to waive the recoupment of a bonus unless there is evidence that shows service members "knew or reasonably should have known" that they weren't eligible to receive the money.
The Guard offered enlistment bonuses of as much as $15,000 and student loan aid to nearly 10,000 soldiers at the height of the two wars in the 2000s. Members of the California congressional delegation and veterans leaders expressed outrage over the Pentagon's decision to force troops who had served overseas to return money when they said the fault lay with military recruiters.
"It's clear that the Pentagon had all the right authorities to prevent this mess in the first place, but the benefit now is that Congress is going to keep the individuals overseeing this honest and the process open all the way through," said GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
The deal applies beyond California troops and covers any member of the armed forces. It shifts the burden to Defense Department officials to prove service member were not eligible for a bonus or another type of special pay.
A review board is to examine all the bonuses and student loan repayment contracts awarded between 2004 and 2015 "for which the department has reason to believe a recoupment of pay may be warranted," the measure states.
Any service member determined not to have been eligible for the bonus pay or aid must be contacted by service officials and given the opportunity to submit "documentary and other evidence," according to the provision.
The board is directed to determine recoupment of a bonus unwarranted "unless the board makes an affirmative determination, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the member knew or reasonably should have known" they weren't entitled to the money.
The measure requires the Defense Department to reimburse soldiers who already had repaid the government, and to notify credit agencies that a previously reported debt "was never valid."
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said the legislation will ensure soldiers who were required to pay back bonuses and benefits "they received in good faith are not the subject of clawbacks both now or in the future."