Combat Veterans Scored a Victory Against the U.S. Military

October 26th 2016

Danielle DeCourcey

Combat veterans just won an important victory against the the government they served. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced that a controversial policy forcing California National Guard veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan to pay back thousands of dollars in bonuses will be suspended.

"There is no more important responsibility for the Department of Defense than keeping faith with our people," he said in a statement to the media on Wednesday. "That means treating them fairly and equitably, honoring their service and sacrifice, and keeping our word."

However, the suspension does not mean that collection efforts have ended permanently. Carter is suspending the process only until he is "satisfied" that the process for assessing and collecting repayments is "working effectively" and ensures the "fair and equitable treatment" of service members.

"Soldiers from the California Army National Guard 1st Battalion, 140th Aviation Regiment, 40th Combat Aviation Brigade hit the ground running during a small unit tactics exercise at Fort Hood, Texas, Oct. 19, 2015."

Why was the military squeezing its own soldiers for money?

After the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq dragged on for several years, the military needed more troops on the ground. Thousands of service members in the California National Guard were offered re-enlistment bonuses to go back into combat zones for another six years on active duty. But the Los Angeles Times first reported that the military was demanding its money back 10 years later, and Congress didn't do anything to stop it.

U.S. Army soldiers board a plane to Iraq.

The Pentagon said that nearly 10,000 re-enlistment bonuses paid in 2006 and 2007 to members of the California National Guard should not have been approved. As a result, veterans who were given bonuses in error and were being forced to pay them back, even though they fulfilled their end of the bargain by returning to combat zones. Susan Haley served 26 years in the Army and then was told she owed the federal government $20,500 years after she originally received the money, according to NBC News. Before Carter's announcement, she was forced to send the military $650 a month.

"Totally betrayed, that's how I feel," Haley told NBC News earlier this week before the announcement. "I didn't knowingly accept money I wasn't supposed to have. They wanted me to reenlist, and I was assured everything was fine."

It's unclear at this point whether veterans like Haley will be reimbursed for the large monthly payments they already made to the military.

"More details Soldiers from the California Army National Guard 1st Battalion."

The California National Guard says that Congress knew about this problem two years ago.

Members of Congress joined a massive outcry this week about the huge financial burden placed on these veterans.

However, the California National Guard said that members of Congress knew about the problem since at least 2014.

"The California National Guard cannot waive debts unilaterally, as that authority rests at the federal level," the California Military Department said in a statement to ABC News. "In 2014, however, California National Guard leadership did reach out to congressional and other federal leaders to encourage alleviation of these debts. Since recent media reports, many legislative leaders (both state and federal) have expressed an interest in supporting this action to waive the debts."

In 2010, a federal investigation found that recruiters across the country were giving improper bonuses and student loan payments to soldiers who did not qualify for them. The improper bonuses were given out across the country, but California was the only state that audited bonus payments given during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, focusing more attention on the state, according to the Los Angeles Times.

ATTN: contacted a spokesperson for the California Military Department. They declined to comment. 

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