Defense Secretary Ash Carter ordered the Pentagon on Wednesday to stop clawing-back the bonuses that thousands of soldiers got for reenlisting to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“There is no more important responsibility for the Department of Defense than keeping faith with our people,” Carter said in a statement. “Today, in keeping with that obligation, I am ordering a series of steps to ensure fair treatment for thousands of California National Guard soldiers who may have received incentive bonuses and tuition assistance improperly as a result of errors and in some cases criminal behavior by members of the California National Guard.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters on Wednesday that the message to struggling soldiers is President Obama “has their back.”
“The President makes the fair treatment of our service members a top priority,” Earnest said. “When a promise is made to our men and women in uniform, we should keep. That’s certainly the view of the President.”
Carter’s announcement was greeted with cheers in Kempner, Texas where Don and Susan Haley — both Iraq War veterans — had been struggling to pay back the bonuses they got when they reenlisted a decade ago in the California National Guard.
“This is awesome,” Don Haley, 47, told NBC News. “I wish this happened a week ago. My wife just cut a check for $650 to cover this month’s payment.”
“Secretary Carter made the right call to suspend efforts to collect bonuses and benefits that were given in error to soldiers who enlisted or reenlisted to serve our nation during war time,” he said in a statement. “While this will help some families sleep a bit easier at night, much more needs to be done, starting with Congressional legislation to waive these debts and to provide relief to soldiers who have already repaid some or all of the bonuses they accepted in good faith.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan said he was glad “the Pentagon came to its senses.”
The Los Angeles Times broke the story over the weekend, stoking nationwide outrage.
The good news for the Haleys, whose son lost a leg while fighting in Afghanistan, came after Carter — in an exclusive interview with NBC News — blasted the treatment of thousands of soldiers who were being forced to return the bonuses they got for signing up for six more years.
“Well, of course I am outraged,” Carter said. “This is a case where we have a trust with the service members who have served us and … we need do justice. And we need to do it fast.”
Read more at NBCnews.com.