WASHINGTON (AP) - U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Wednesday ordered the Pentagon to suspend its effort to seek repayments of enlistment bonuses given to thousands of California National Guard members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Carter's decision comes in the wake of angry reaction from congressional Republicans and Democrats who demanded he relieve the burden on the Guard members. And the White House said President Barack Obama had warned the Defense Department not to "nickel and dime" service members who were victims of fraud by overzealous recruiters.
In a statement issued during a meeting of defense ministers in Brussels, Carter said effort to collect reimbursement should stop "as soon as is practical."
He said he has ordered the department to set up a streamlined process by Jan. 1 to help troops get relief from the repayment obligation, because the current program has moved too slowly.
"This process has dragged on too long, for too many service members," Carter said. "Too many cases have languished without action. That's unfair to service members and to taxpayers."
The new process will put "as little burden as possible on any soldier who received an improper payment through no fault of his or her own, Carter said. "At the same time, it will respect our important obligation to the taxpayer."
Carter said some of the soldiers knew or should have known that they didn't qualify for the bonuses.
"While some soldiers knew or should have known they were ineligible for benefits they were claiming, many others did not."
The Pentagon hopes to complete all cases by next July 1. About 2,000 members of the National Guard in California have been asked to repay the erroneous payments.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said he was pleased at the announcement. McCarthy said he spoke with Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work Tuesday night and told him that veterans "have already given more than what they owe to this nation. Today's swift action demonstrates that the department agrees."
McCarthy said he will work with other members of Congress to provide a long-term legislative solution so the repayment issue does not recur.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and other members of Congress had urged the Pentagon to suspend efforts to recover the enlistment bonuses, saying Guard members should not be punished for the mistakes of others.
The Los Angeles Times reported over the weekend that the Pentagon has demanded that some soldiers repay their enlistment bonuses after audits revealed overpayments by the California National Guard. Recruiters under pressure to fill ranks and hit enlistment goals at the height of the two wars improperly offered bonuses of $15,000 or more to soldiers who re-enlisted, the newspaper reported.
If soldiers refuse to pay the bonus back, they could face interest charges, wage garnishments and tax liens.
The Pentagon said late Tuesday that it instructed at most 6,500 California Guard soldiers to repay the enlistment bonuses. That number is lower than a widely reported figure that nearly 10,000 soldiers have been told to repay part or all of their bonuses.
The California Guard said Tuesday it has collected about $22 million from fewer than 2,000 soldiers who improperly received bonuses and student loan aid.
Baldor reported from Brussels. AP National Security Writer Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.