U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter has ordered the Pentagon to stop seeking the repayment of enlistment bonuses issued to California National Guard members, the Associated Press reported.
In a statement issued during a meeting of defense ministers in Brussels, Carter said the Pentagon should stop seeking repayment “as soon as is practical.”
He issued the order on Wednesday in the wake of criticism regarding the military’s effort to force reservists to repay enlistment bonuses of up to $15,000 that were improperly approved a decade ago.
Criticism comes in the wake of a report that revealed California National Guard officials are demanding reenlistment bonuses that were offered to service members during the height of the Iraq War.
— U.S. Dept of Defense (@DeptofDefense) October 26, 2016
A federal investigation a few years ago revealed that there was mismanagement and fraud being conducted by California Guard officials that resulted in local units paying out more than $20 million in fraudulent bonuses and student loan payments. The veterans were not aware that the bonuses were fraudulent and they are forced to pay back the money with interest.
California veterans have been struggling with the issue for years and hundreds of them have been granted relief through the Defense Department’s Office of Hearing and Appeals.
“This process has dragged on too long, for too many service members,” Carter said. “Too many cases have languished without action. That’s unfair to service members and to taxpayers.”
Carter ordered the department to set up a process by Jan. 1, 2017 to aid in the relief of the troops repayment obligation, which has “moved too slowly and in some cases imposed unreasonable burdens on service members,” Carter said.
Carter ordered Undersecretary of Defense Peter Levine, to review and streamline the bureaucratic process that enables service members to appeal and seek the elimination of debts imposed by military accountants.
Carter added that roughly 2,000 California National Guard members have been asked to repay their bonuses that were improperly given to them.
The process will place “as little burden as possible on any soldier who received an improper payment through no fault of his or her own. At the same time, it will respect our important obligation to the taxpayer,” Carter said.
Carter added that the plan is to complete the process and get all cases resolved by July 1, 2017.
On Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan called for the Pentagon to stop seeking repayment of the enlistment bonuses that were paid to thousands of soldiers. The Pentagon later said that the number of soldiers that were given the enlistment bonuses was smaller than originally believed.
He called on the Pentagon to suspend their collection effort until “Congress has time … to protect service members from lifelong liability for DOD’s mistakes.”
The White House said that President Barack Obama warned the Defense Department not to “nickel and dime” service members that were victims of fraud by recruiters.