PARIS (NBC News) – Defense Secretary Ash Carter is blasting the treatment of thousands of soldiers in California who are being asked to return their enlistment bonuses, vowing to take swift action as the Pentagon admitted the issue may affect service members in other states.
“Well, of course I am outraged,” Carter told NBC News in an exclusive interview Wednesday. “This is a case where we have a trust with the service members who have served us and … we need do justice. And we need to do it fast.”
The scandal involving some 9,700 California National Guard soldiers, who are being asked to return their bonuses to the Pentagon from a decade ago, gained national attention after The Los Angeles Times broke the story over the weekend. The soldiers in 2006 and 2007 were given $15,000 or more if they agreed to reenlist and fight in Iraq or Afghanistan for six years.
But the Pentagon determined that a majority of those soldiers, about 6,500, needed to repay the bonuses because they were not actually eligible for them or the paperwork at the time had errors.
Soldiers who refuse to pay the bonuses back face possible interest charges, wage garnishments and tax liens.
The Pentagon’s demand that they return the cash has angered Washington lawmakers, who in a bipartisan show of support are investigating the brewing scandal and asked the California National Guard to turn over documents and audits concerning the program by Nov. 7.
The chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, has called for the officials who mismanaged the program to be “held accountable.”
Other lawmakers, including House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, said they would pass legislation to halt the recovery of the bonuses as soon as Congress is back in session after the Nov. 8 election.
Carter said he does not yet know how far-reaching the problem has been although the Department of Defense has acknowledged it could extend beyond California. He said he would like to remedy the issue without waiting for Congress.
“We are going to do everything we possibly can without waiting for any change in the law [although] there are some legal limitations,” he said. “We need to do the right thing by our service members — that’s the main thing. We also have to do the right thing by the taxpayer. And of course we will.”