War & Peace

Give Veterans Back Their Enlistment Bonuses

A leader of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America says the government should return bonus money it took from service members.

Vets Group Demands Repayment of Enlistment Bonuses

US Army Sergeant Kierre Tate (right) inquires about employment prospects at the first Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) Job Fair for Veterans in Los Angeles on Sept. 14, 2016. (Photo by Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

As a citizen, reservist and advocate for post-9/11 veterans, I am horrified at the latest in a series of insults I see servicemembers, veterans and their families having to endure through no fault of their own.

We haven’t heard any substantive discussion of how the prospective commanders in chief would improve services for veterans in any of the presidential debates.

Last week, the Los Angeles Times revealed a crisis, years in the making, whereby thousands of servicemembers who re-enlisted at the height of two wars when their country was begging for their service, are being forced to repay five-figure bonuses they received in return for heading back to the fight instead of transitioning to the civilian world. Men and women who bravely stepped forward to serve our country now face financial ruin and a future of uncertainty as the Pentagon and Congress point fingers and offer no real solutions.

The California National Guard scandal reveals a trend that many veterans have grown to recognize: As the wars fade from the public eye, veterans are being left behind. We’re nearing the end of the nastiest presidential campaign in recent memory, and we haven’t heard any substantive discussion of how the prospective commanders in chief would improve services for veterans in any of the presidential debates. If not for the Commander in Chief Forum on NBC executed by IAVA, we would not have had any dedicated time to the candidates addressing this issue.

All year long, government and business leaders from around the country thank us for our service. We see cars on our streets with ribbons on the back reading “support the troops.” And the media is quick to show highlight reels of returning servicemembers surprising their crying children. But it occurs to me there’s a better way to thank our servicemembers, veterans and their families for their service — by having their backs, as they’ve had ours.

Veterans are not a needy bunch. They are civic-minded, returning to their communities as leaders and bringing with them the drive, experience and spirit of service that sets them apart in their communities and leads to great success.

Nonetheless, we must ensure they receive proper treatment when they come home, for complicated and often devastating visible and invisible wounds of war that the majority of Americans will never experience. We owe it to them to ensure they return home to the benefits that were promised to them when they entered service, not to some portion of those benefits because some politicians or government bureaucrats decided to reallocate funds.

We’re now fast approaching Veterans Day, a day we hear a lot more of “thank you for your service.” It’s a nice gesture, and we hear it a lot more than our brothers-in-arms who fought in Vietnam and returned home to expectorating crowds. But, in light of the Pentagon’s forced recoupment of bonuses given to California National Guardsmen, it rings hollow.

That is why IAVA is calling on the Pentagon to actually honor the men and women who have stepped up and served and to #PayThemBack by Veterans Day this year.

It’s not enough to halt bonus recoupments, as Secretary Ashton Carter announced this week. The brave servicemembers who step forward to serve our country should never be penalized for failures of their leadership. The government must pay back those servicemembers affected, with interest, before Veterans Day. We will not accept platitudes and ceremonial support of veterans this Veterans Day; we demand action from the government.

Tom Porter

Tom Porter is legislative director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), advocating for veterans' issues in Washington DC. A former vice president at Morgan Meguire, he served on the staffs of three members of Congress, including former House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-CA). He is a US military veteran having served two tours of duty in Afghanistan and in the Arabian Gulf. Follow him on Twitter: @TomPorterDC.