Editorial: Adding insult — and debt notices — to soldiers’ woes

SHARE Editorial: Adding insult — and debt notices — to soldiers’ woes
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California Air National Guard soldiers stand at attention in 2011 as the body of a soldier killed in Afghanistan arrives in Mountain View, Calif. Thousands of California National Guard soldiers have been ordered to repay enlistment bonuses years after signing up to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan | AP file photo.

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Let’s say you’re in the fortunate position to be wooed for a job. The company wants you so badly that it hands you a generous signing bonus.

Years later your boss wants the money back because the company, it turns out, messed up. You weren’t eligible for the extra dough.

You’d probably look for another job in a hurry.

So what kind of message is the Pentagon sending to members of the California National Guard and potential recruits across the nation when it demands that re-enlistment bonuses distributed in error a decade ago be paid back, as reported in the Los Angeles Times?

It’s a grim lesson, for sure. We are supposed to look after soldiers who serve our country, not make them scapegoats for the errors and carelessness of others. They should be allowed to keep the money except in cases where there is evidence the soldiers knew they were ineligible for bonuses.

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“It is unthinkable to me that the Department of Defense’s first reaction is to punish service members who fulfilled their end of the deal,” Brian Duffy, commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said in a statement. “This is how you destroy all faith in a Pentagon that is supposed to have your back.”

Our feelings exactly.

The Pentagon must go a step further and return money to those who have been paying back bonuses for years, such as retired California National Guard Master Sgt. Bill McLain, whose wife Terese has written $100 monthly checks for three years to the Pentagon, according to the Los Angeles Times. She writes “blood money” on the checks. McLain is 90 percent disabled because of combat injuries but is paying back $30,000.

The debt collection by the Pentagon has been suspended — for now — by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. His office will streamline a process that ensures “fair and equitable treatment” of soldiers, he said.

Overpayments were made to soldiers in every state as the U.S. fought two wars simultaneously, according to the Times, but the Illinois National Guard has said it has no cases like those in California. Almost 10,000 Californians who received bonuses of $15,000 or more to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan were asked to repay them, the newspaper reported. Carter says it’s about 2,000 soldiers.

The California Guard incentive manager, Army Master Sgt. Toni Jaffe, was sentenced to 30 months in prison for filing false claims after a federal investigation found that bonuses and student loan payments were awarded to ineligible soldiers. Three others also pleaded guilty to fraud.

That case set in motion an audit of the bonuses, which resulted in debt notices to soldiers. If they fulfilled their end of the deal to serve the country, don’t make them pay.

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