Friday, October 24th, 2014

The military signing bonus squabble

SUMMARY: Hillary Clinton says the Pentagon is trying to take away the signing bonuses of soldiers who get wounded in combat and that she's part of an effort in Congress to end the practice. But her words are somewhat misleading.

The dig by Sen. Hillary Clinton makes the Bush administration's treatment of wounded veterans seem almost so heartless as to be implausible.

"The Bush administration sends mixed messages," Clinton said during a Jan. 15, 2008, debate in Las Vegas. "They want to recruit and retain these young people to serve our country and then they have the Pentagon trying to take away the signing bonuses when a soldier gets wounded and ends up in the hospital, something that I'm working with a Republican senator to try to make sure never can happen again."

The Army suggests this issue may all be a tempest in a political teapot, that it simply made a clerical error in asking a wounded vet to return a portion of his signing bonus. But there's another issue, one that may be a bit more legitimate: whether wounded soldiers ought to be guaranteed future installments of enlistment bonuses, bonuses pegged to future years of service they were not able to complete.

In 2007, nearly 39,000 Army recruits received an average of $16,500 in enlistment bonuses, according to Maj. Nathan M. Banks Sr. of the Department of Army Public Affairs. Bonuses are sometimes paid in lump sums, but sometimes in installments, with some paid up-front and then more as soldiers complete years of their commitment.

The issue Clinton addresses was first raised in July 2007, when the bipartisan Commission on Care for America's Returning Wounded Warrior, co-chaired by former Sen. Bob Dole and former Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, released a draft report. It's under the heading, "A Gratifying Accomplishment..."

"In the course of our work with veterans and their families, we learned that service members' remaining enlistment bonuses were not being paid when they were injured and medically retired or separated from active duty."

The Defense Department was apparently applying a rule that enlistees who leave early cannot receive their full enlistment bonus, the report stated. "We were confident that this rule was surely not intended to apply to service men and women whose combat-related injuries forced them to leave the military."

No one knows how many veterans might have been shortchanged this way, but the commission contacted the Pentagon and received assurances the payments would be made to all applicable injured service members, retroactive to 2001.

The commission apparently deemed the problem solved and the issue was never raised in its August 2007 final report.

Nevertheless, in October 2007, Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa., introduced the Veterans Guaranteed Bonus Act to formally ensure that wounded veterans are paid the entirety of any signing bonus they were promised within 30 days after discharge for combat-related wounds.

"Early discharge from the military due to a combat-related injury should not result in the loss of an enlistee's bonus," Altmire stated. "These brave men and women fight for us, so we should fight for them and guarantee that they receive the bonuses that they have earned and to which they are entitled."

A Senate version of the bill was introduced by Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., in November 2007. According to Sessions' staff, the intent was "to clarify the law so that there was no confusion in the future." The Senate bill, which is still pending, has 18 co-sponsors, including Clinton.

The issue gathered steam that month when a Pittsburgh television station reported the story of Jordan Fox, an army private who was partially blinded in one eye from the explosion of a roadside bomb in Iraq. After Fox returned home with a medical discharge, he got a letter from the Army asking him to repay $2,800 of a $7,500 enlistment bonus.

While Fox was held up by many politicians as Exhibit A in the case for the new legislation, his case also may have muddied the waters.

The Army says it simply made an "error in pay processing."

Defense Department policy is clear: Bonuses already paid should not be recouped if "injury or illness of the service member was not the result of the service member's misconduct."

The Army contends Fox's was an isolated case. In fact, when it set up a hotline for pay problems, it received just two calls on the issue.

Officials at several veterans groups who supported the legislation say they have not heard of any other cases of wounded veterans being asked to pay back a part of an already received enlistment bonus.

No one has made such a complaint at the Bay Pines VA hospital in St. Petersburg, said spokesman Faith Belcher. Bay Pines is the fourth-largest VA hospital in the country and last year took care of 94,248 veterans.

So are we talking about legislation to fix a problem that may have affected just three people? As it relates to wounded soldiers having to return portions of paid bonuses, perhaps. And certainly a lot of politicians made a lot of political hay about that.

But that's different than unpaid, future installments of bonuses. Say a soldier got a $10,000 up-front bonus and was promised an additional $5,000 at the end of each of three years of completed duty. If he was injured and medically discharged in his first year of service, would he get the final two years of unpaid bonuses?

Defense Department policy there is less clear. The secretary of the Military Department may decide to pay the soldier unpaid installments if he or she determines that not paying would be "against equity and good conscience, or contrary to the best interests of the United States."

Richard C. Schneider, executive director for government affairs for the Noncommissioned Officers Association, said that while he has not heard of any cases of wounded veterans being asked to return portions of a signing bonus, he has heard from a couple veterans who may not have received future installments. And that is wrong, he said.

"The promise was made; honor the promise," Schneider said.

The legislation Clinton co-sponsored would require the military to pay all future installments upon medical discharge.

"That's a question more up for debate," said Vanessa Williamson, policy director for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which supports the legislation.

"Someone who made a commitment and such tremendous sacrifice, it is not appropriate that they lose out on their promised bonus," Williamson said. "I think this is a real issue. And it has a simple solution."

No one knows, still, how many wounded veterans this may affect. The Congressional Budget Office informally told congressional staffs that the proposed legislation — to include unpaid installments — might cost about $1-million a year. That may seem like a lot of money, but considering the number of wounded vets, it doesn't suggest they think this is a widespread, institutional problem. The Senate bill seeks an accounting by the military to find out.

So while Clinton highlights a legitimate issue — paying future installments of enlistment bonuses even after wounded veterans have been discharged — her wording is somewhat misleading, suggesting that wounded veterans are being forced to return bonus money. There is little evidence to suggest that happened to more than a couple veterans, and the Army admitted its mistake.

Also misleading is her suggestion that there was some kind of Bush administration effort to deny future bonus payments promised to wounded vets.

But she may be right that some were denied future bonus payments (although it is far from clear that this is still happening), and the legislation co-sponsored by Clinton would make it crystal clear they are to be paid.