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Pentagon halts effort to recover Guard enlistment bonuses

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Wednesday suspended a Pentagon order that California National Guardsmen repay thousands of dollars in enlistment bonuses and tuition assistance they had received by mistake.

A member of the California Air National Guard's 129th Rescue Wing jumps off a military transport plane and into the ocean during a U.S. military rescue mission, in this April 3, 2014 still image obtained from video footage. REUTERS/California Air National Guard/Handout via Reuters TV
A member of the California Air National Guard's 129th Rescue Wing jumps off a military transport plane and into the ocean during a U.S. military rescue mission, in this April 3, 2014 still image obtained from video footage. REUTERS/California Air National Guard/Handout via Reuters TV

BRUSSELS, Belgium - U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Wednesday suspended a Pentagon order that California National Guardsmen repay thousands of dollars in enlistment bonuses and tuition assistance they had received by mistake.

"While some soldiers knew or should have known they were ineligible for benefits they were claiming, many others did not," Carter, who is in Europe meeting with U.S. allies, said in a statement.

"This process has dragged on too long, for too many service members," he said. "Too many cases have languished without action. That's unfair to service members and to taxpayers."

About 10,000 California National Guard troops had been ordered to repay enlistment bonuses - some of more than $15,000 - that were improperly given to them. The Los Angeles Times, which first reported on the bonuses last week, said audits revealed the California Guard had overpaid troops in order to entice them to join and meet enlistment targets more than a decade ago.

The Obama administration has been criticized by some military families and Republicans - including presidential candidate Donald Trump - for not doing enough for veterans. There also have bipartisan calls in the U.S. Congress to forgive the overpayments.

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Carter, speaking to reporters in Brussels as he announced the suspension, said the law required the Pentagon keep open the option of someday again seeking repayment.

"But the point is that ... there won't be any more collections until we put in place a process that can expeditiously and fairly deal with these issues," he said.

Senior Defense Department officials have been told to assess the bonus situation and establish a "streamlined, centralized process" by the start of next year, Carter said in the statement.

"The objective will be to complete the decision-making process on all cases as soon as possible - and no later than July 1," he said.

The issue has caused outrage in Congress. Members from both parties have called on the Pentagon to drop efforts to reclaim the bonuses.

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement onWednesday that Congress would "continue to work on any reforms necessary to ensure this doesn't happen again."

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