San Diego lawmakers slam Pentagon for demanding enlistment bonus paybacks

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SAN DIEGO – San Diego-area lawmakers and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton Monday slammed an effort by the Pentagon to reclaim enlistment bonuses paid to around 10,000 California National Guard personnel.

The bonuses were paid out around a decade ago to maintain force levels at the height of the country’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but subsequent investigations uncovered widespread overpayments, fraud and mismanagement by California National Guard officials.

According to the Los Angeles Times, soldiers who received the money said the Pentagon is reneging on agreements and imposing financial hardships on them.

Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, R-El Cajon, said he wrote to Defense Secretary Ash Carter and urged immediate action to resolve the repayment demands.

“While an audit revealed that these bonuses were paid in either error or excess, the fact that these payments occurred in the first place in exchange for reenlistment should dissolve any burden on the part of the soldiers to repay the bonuses,” wrote Hunter, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee.

“This is especially true with the understanding of the financial hardship that repayment has caused for many individuals and families, most of them who faithfully upheld their commitment of service,” the congressman wrote.

He said asking the personnel to repay the money “is disgraceful and insulting” and “boneheaded.”

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, sent a similar letter to Carter and congressional leaders.

“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.

Issa, who is in a tight reelection battle with a retired Marine colonel, asked for language in the next defense authorization act to waive the “unjust penalty.”

His opponent, Doug Applegate, called for an immediate halt to collection of the bonus payments.

“These men and women put their lives on the line to serve our country and they earned and deserved these payments,” Applegate said.

“It’s outrageous that veterans are the ones who are suffering because of clerical errors made by others,” he said. “The California National Guard and Department of Defense should immediately halt these collection efforts and Congress should immediately vote on legislation that will fix this unconscionable burden on our veterans.”

Rep. Susan Davis, D-San Diego, said she planned to look into options to correct the situation.

“They were granted at a time of great national security needs,” Davis said.

“As ranking member of the Military Personnel Subcommittee, I will look into all available options to help these service members and their families,” she said. “They should not have to pay the price for mistakes made by others over a decade ago and we owe it to them to address this.”

Assemblyman Brian Jones, R-Santee, said he was “outraged” and would work to fix the issue at the state level.

“I find the lack of respect for these champions of liberty appalling,” Jones said. “Threatening our veterans with warnings of tax liens and increased interest rate charges must not stand and I will work with all state leaders to see this issue addressed in the appropriate manner.”

Clinton’s campaign issued a statement in which she said she was “appalled” that officials are trying to get back the money that was handed out with the encouragement of government officials.

“These troops deserve our support and our deepest gratitude — they served admirably and upheld their part of the bargain,” Clinton said.

“It is unacceptable to now subject them and their families to undue financial burdens thanks to mismanagement from the California National Guard and rigid bureaucracy on the part of the Pentagon,” she said. “I am calling on Congress to swiftly pass legislation to right this wrong.”

She said officials should assist families in identifying and applying for relief as well establishing an expedited review process.

Donald Trump, the Republican candidate, had not weighed in on the issue as of late this afternoon.