California National Guardsmen line up at Fort Irwin in San Bernardino County. (Los Angeles Times)

David S. Cloud
December 9, 2016

The Senate overwhelmingly approved a $619-billion defense authorization bill Thursday that includes direct help for thousands of California National Guard soldiers and veterans facing repayment demands for long-ago enlistment bonuses.

The bill sets strict limits on the government’s ability to recoup money from any California Guard soldier or veteran who unknowingly received an improper bonus payment from the start of 2004 to the end of 2015.

It also requires the California Guard to reimburse any soldier who already has repaid the government and to notify credit agencies that any debt previously reported was invalid.

The compromise legislation passed the Senate, 92 to 7, days after it won House approval by a similarly lopsided margin. The bill sets military spending levels higher than the administration sought, but President Obama is expected to sign it into law.

One provision in the mammoth National Defense Authorization Act directs the Pentagon to set up a board to fast-track case reviews of the estimated 9,700 California Guard soldiers who received enlistment bonuses or other financial incentives in error.

Most of the improper payments ranged from $15,000 to $50,000 each, and some date back more than a decade. The California Guard was scrambling at the time to provide troops for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Under the bill, the review board will recommend which California Guard soldiers should have their debts fully or partially waived and which should be required to repay some or all of their bonuses. It sets a deadline to complete the work by July.

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