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​Defense Secretary Ash Carter ordered the Defense Finance and Accounting Service to suspend its efforts to collect reimbursement from thousands of California National Guard members who received bonuses they were not entitled to years ago, he announced Wednesday. National Guard Bureau chief Gen. Joseph Lengyel said earlier Wednesday morning he thinks a majority of the soldiers who accepted the bonuses believed they were entitled to them. “They were told they could take this money, and they were told they were entitled to the money,” he told the Defense Writers Group in Washington D.C. “They took the money, they reenlisted, they did whatever they thought they were doing, and they went about their business.” But others, including officers, who don’t receive reenlistment bonuses, knowingly accepted money they weren’t entitled to, he said. For that reason, Lengyel said each of the 13,500 cases—potentially worth between $40 million and $50 million—handled by the California incentives program manager who left in 2008 will be reviewed. “It’s the policy that when people are wrongly given money, the government generally goes and gets it back,” Lengyel said. “So we owe [it] to all the people who have taken bonuses incorrectly before and had to pay it back, to go back and look at all of these cases and make sure we’re treating people fairly.” He said the only blanket rule is to do the right thing. “If their hands are clean, and they were just soldiers doing their duties and doing their jobs, it is not our intent to try and enforce this hardship on them 10 years later,” he said. A review of Guard bonus programs from every other state has only revealed sporadic errors, Lengyel said.

On Wednesday, Carter also ordered a team headed by Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Peter Levine to create a process to resolve the cases by 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,” Carter said in the statement. “I want to be clear: this process has dragged on too long, for too many service members.” Lawmakers and others, including the Air Force Association, voiced support for Carter’s decision to suspend the collection efforts. “AFA agrees with the steps taken by Secretary of Defense Carter to resolve this issue quickly and with fairness. AFA has always stood alongside our troops, their families, and veterans. We must not break faith with them under any circumstance,” AFA President Larry Spencer said. “We will continue to do all that's within our power to advocate on behalf of our military men and women who have served and sacrificed on behalf of our Nation.”