California National Guard Approached Congress in 2014 About Bonuses

PHOTO: In this Nov. 30, 2011 file photo, California Army National Guard soldiers watch the arrival of the body of soldier Sean Walsh, who died on Nov. 16 during a combat operation in Afghanistan, at Moffett Federal Airfield in Mountain View, California. PlayPaul Sakuma/AP Photo
WATCH Outrage Over Soldier Bonus Paybacks Turns to Congress

The California National Guard notified Congress and other federal leaders in 2014 that it wanted legislation that would have provided relief to Guardsmen required to pay their re-enlistment bonuses and student loan repayments back to the Pentagon.

News of the bonus repayments has sparked outrage from members of Congress who have called on the Pentagon to stop collecting from California National Guardsmen.

"Never did I hear this come up," House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said in an interview Tuesday with Fox News.

"The California National Guard cannot waive debts unilaterally, as that authority rests at the federal level," read a statement issued Tuesday by the California Military Department. "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."

"We are working with Congressional leaders to support a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that provides relief to Soldiers," the statement continued. "That vote is expected to take place at the end of the calendar year."

A senior House GOP aide says the House and Senate Armed Services Committees are working to address the concerns about debt repayments in the annual defense policy bill Congress is expected to pass by mid-December.

According to a congressional official, the California National Guard brought up the issue of bonus repayments in a 2014 letter listing their overall priorities, but that there was no specific follow-up done with relevant congressional offices.

"Thousands of soldiers have inadvertently incurred debt, through no fault of their own, because of faulty Army recruiting or accounting practices, and malicious individuals," the letter read. "Unfortunately, no official process exists to adjudicate debt relief for Army National Guard soldiers, which has caused years of hardship for them and their families."

The letter also includes suggested legislative language to address the problem.

Congressional sources familiar with the request say the California National Guard could have done more to sound the alarm with members of Congress. No mention of the request was made in additional letters sent to California members and House appropriators in 2014.

Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., approached the House Armed Services Committee with a proposal to waive debt repayments, but negotiations fell through over a correspondent cut to spending.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a veteran and member of the House Armed Services Committee, called the payback requirement "boneheaded," and said members of Congress were not aware of the severity of the problem.

Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., along with California Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, say the Pentagon has the ability to waive the payments.

"Anybody who volunteers serve in the armed forces of the United States deserves our gratitude and respect," Defense Secretary Ash Carter told reporters at a press conference in Paris Tuesday. Carter said he was aware of the bonus issue and "we are going to look into it and resolve it." He said he had asked to Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work to look at the situation which he labeled "a significant issue."

At the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan the National Guard offered bonuses beginning at $10,000 to Guardsmen in highly skilled positions who were willing to re-enlist.

The California National Guard said in the statement that it had audited 30,000 individual records associated with an initial report of fraud committed from 2000 to 2010.

"However, many of the soldiers who received the bonuses acted on good faith resulting from bad information; some, however, knowingly committed fraud" read the California Military Department statement.

Six California Guardsman, including the person who ran the bonus program, served jail time for their involvement in fraudulently issuing payments to Guardsmen who did not qualify for the payments. Another 40 were punished administratively for collusion in receiving payments they were not entitled to receive.

In 2011 the California National Guard created a Soldier Incentive and Assistance Center (SIAC) to look at the cases of affected Guardsmen "who acted in good faith."

"Had the California National Guard not established the SIAC, each soldier that received a bonus would have suffered immediate wage garnishment from the federal government," read the statement. "The SIAC, instead, offered a path of appeal and has helped about 4,000 soldiers retain about $37 million in bonus money."

"Because the California National Guard is unable to unilaterally relieve these debts, the SIAC will continue to advocate for soldiers in the hope they might receive some relief from federal authorities," read the statement from the California Military Military Department. "We do not see this as a benefit to the soldier, we see this as our duty."

ABC News' Ben Siegel contributed to this report.