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Like most Americans, I was saddened and disgusted by recent news that California National Guardsmen are losing bonus money they earned from signing reenlistment contracts to go fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. While I recognize that these bonuses were improperly awarded, the members of the Guard who should be punished for allowing these improper bonuses are already in jail or dismissed from the service. We shouldn’t punish the brave veterans whose only mistake was trusting that their government acted in good faith by offering the bonuses. I’m heartened by the Secretary of Defense’s decision to halt temporarily any attempts to recall bonus moneys, but this is just a temporary fix to a larger problem.
I’ve worked on this issue of improper bonuses since my days in the state legislature – which until recently the Department of Defense (DoD) claimed was much smaller in scale – and I’ve long maintained that the DoD already has the legal authority necessary to stop recollection. The Secretary’s recent action confirmed my belief. The DoD needs to own up to its mistakes, fix this problem permanently, and get back to protecting our soldiers instead of harassing them. If Congress acts to waive these so-called debts, it will be because the DoD didn’t fix this problem itself. Yet, based on the anemic response so far, it appears Congress may have to step in and do the DoD’s job for them.
I’m even more troubled by what this scandal will do to our efforts to recruit and retain the next generation of Guardsmen. We can’t expect young men and women to sign up to serve when they can’t trust the enlistment contract they’re signing. We have a generation of battle tested and experienced leaders in our current force. This kind of experience and skill is invaluable and impossible to reproduce quickly. We’ll need these combat-experienced troops in future conflicts. How can we expect them to stay in uniform while they watch their fellow soldiers driven into financial ruin through no fault of their own? This situation isn’t just about fairness. Scandals like these hurt our military’s readiness to fight and its ability to attract and retain the very best troops possible.
The bedrock of any fighting unit is trust. From their first day in a pair of boots, every service member learns to trust in one another and believe that, no matter what, we leave no one behind. This scandal over improper bonuses and the unsatisfactory response of the DoD is a betrayal of trust. It eats away at the very fabric of our military and destroys the faith our service members and veterans have placed in their government. When National Guardsmen are losing their houses to pay back bonuses, we’re clearly not earning their trust. The DoD must stop playing the blame game and focus their energies on finding a real solution amid a tough budgetary situation. At stake is the reputation of the Guard, the national security of our country, and the personal financial solvency of individual Guardsmen. I stand ready to work with the DoD or, if necessary, work independent of them to find that solution.
There’s no overnight fix to a problem this widespread, but I’ve participated in initial discussions strategizing possible legislative solutions. I also urge the DoD to do the right thing independent of Congress. After all, it’s the least I can do for the brave men and women who’ve stood watch for us all.
Col. Paul Cook (Ret.) represents California’s 8th Congressional District and currently serves on the House Armed Services, Foreign Affairs, and Natural Resources committees. He served in the United States Marine Corps for 26 years, earning two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star Medal with a V for Valor.