There is no more important responsibility for the Department of Defense than keeping faith with our people. That means treating them fairly and equitably, honoring their service and sacrifice, and keeping our word. 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.
While some soldiers knew or should have known they were ineligible for benefits they were claiming, many others did not. About 2,000 have been asked, in keeping with the law, to repay erroneous payments. There is an established process in place by which service members can seek relief from such obligations. Hundreds of affected guard members in California have sought and been granted relief. But that process has simply moved too slowly and in some cases imposed unreasonable burdens on service members. That is unacceptable. So today, on the recommendation of Deputy Secretary Work, I am ordering measures to make sure we provide affected service members the support they need and deserve.
First, I have ordered the Defense Finance and Accounting Service to suspend all efforts to collect reimbursement from affected California National Guard members, effective as soon as is practical. This suspension will continue until I am satisfied that our process is working effectively. Second, I have ordered a team of senior department officials, led by the senior personnel official in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Peter Levine, to assess the situation and establish no later than Jan. 1, 2017 a streamlined, centralized process that ensures the fair and equitable treatment of our service members and the rapid resolution of these cases. The objective will be to complete the decision-making process on all cases as soon as possible - and no later than July 1, 2017.
Ultimately, we will provide for a process that puts as little burden as possible on any soldier who received an improper payment through no fault of his or her own. At the same time, it will respect our important obligation to the taxpayer.
I want to be clear: this process has dragged on too long, for too many service members. Too many cases have languished without action. That's unfair to service members and to taxpayers. The steps I've outlined are designed to meet our obligations to both, and to do so quickly.