Guest Opinion: Debt collectors and the military

St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Oct. 27
Stock image

The Pentagon has inflicted unnecessary financial upheaval upon thousands of California National Guard veterans who sacrificed years of their lives to serve their country in wartime. Congress needs to take quick action to permanently halt an aggressive debt collection program aimed at recouping bonus payments for troops who re-enlisted during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Amid growing outcry from Capitol Hill, Defense Secretary Ash Carter acknowledged Wednesday that the debt collection program was “unacceptable” and ordered it suspended.

A 2010 Sacramento Bee report first exposed irregularities in the re-enlistment incentive program. A Pentagon audit confirmed massive overpayments, which federal law requires the recipients to repay. The incentive program came at a time when the military was under recruitment duress while fighting two costly and debilitating wars.

To avoid losing valuable expertise and encourage soldiers to re-enlist, recruiters began offering substantial financial incentives, but some recruiters overstepped their legal limits. One recruitment chief, former Master Sgt. Toni Jaffe, was sentenced to 30 months in prison for making $15 million in false claims related to the re-enlistment program.

The Los Angeles Times reported last week that around 10,000 former National Guard troops are being required to repay bonuses and government tuition payments. Some were forced to take out second mortgages on their houses to meet rigorous federal schedules. Some had their paychecks garnished. Others face repayment schedules that effectively cut their household incomes by a quarter or more.

Perhaps more to the point, the financial-aid recipients did nothing wrong, even though Carter said some of them should have known they didn’t qualify for the amounts of money they were given.

The soldiers agreed to an up-front deal: Stay in service and receive extra compensation. They lived up to their end of the bargain, which included serving out re-enlistment periods of three to six years each. It wasn’t their fault that the government didn’t check the legality of the promises military recruiters were making.

California wasn’t the only state where such incentives were being offered, so it’s important that troops in other states aren’t put through the same ordeal if audits reveal additional financial abnormalities.

Carter’s decision to suspend the debt-collection program doesn’t necessarily let the affected soldiers off the hook for good. Canceling the debt would take legislation from Congress; House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., already is suggesting ways to address it.

The bottom line here is the government’s trustworthiness. You don’t make an agreement that requires people to put their lives on the line in service to their country and then, after they’ve held up their end of the bargain, tell them that the deal is off. It doesn’t get any more unfair than this. The real harm comes to the nation’s reputation if we renege on our promises.