The Pentagon is urging more than 10,000 California National Guard troops, who are being asked to repay improperly-awarded enlistment bonuses, to apply for a waiver to have the debts forgiven.
The situation stems from criminal misconduct by Army Master Sgt. Tony Jaffe, who was convicted in 2011 of overseeing $20 million in bonuses paid to officers and enlisted personnel who did not qualify as a way of boosting recruitment and retention numbers.
At the time they were paid, the service members had no idea the bonuses were improper, and now many have been threatened with collection agencies and wage garnishment as the government seeks to recoup the money, in some cases $15,000 or more paid to individuals.
A Los Angeles Times story this weekend that profiled some of the guard members facing financial ruin over the outstanding debt sparked outrage among lawmakers in Congress, and has prompted the Pentagon to review what can be done to correct what may feel is a grave injustice.
"This has the attention of our leadership," said Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman. "We're looking at this to see what we can do."
Davis said the Pentagon has the authority to forgive the debt on a case-by-case basis, only after each case is reviewed individually.
"There has been a formal review process in place for some time through which affected service members can be relieved of responsibility to repay improperly awarded bonuses," Davis said. "We continue to encourage members impacted by this situation to pursue those reviews and any relief they may be entitled to receive."
The Pentagon is looking into whether it has the authority to issue a blanket policy that would waive repayment for all affected troops.
In the meantime, the Pentagon is asking Army and National Guard officials to help affected service members navigate the process to file a formal request for relief with the Defense Office of Hearing and Appeals.
"We take doing right by our service member very seriously," Davis said. "Soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who volunteer to serve this country deserve our gratitude, respect and the full support of the Department of Defense."
The Pentagon did not say if service members who have already repaid the governmet would be entitled to a rebate.
As of 2013, more than $6.3 million had been paid back by more than 900 current and former California National Guard members, according to a Pentagon Inspector General's report to Congress.