'Lack of Respect': Army National Guard Criticized by Lawmakers for Bungling Enlistment Bonus Payments

Mississippi National Guard CH-47 Chinook crewman
Mississippi National Guard CH-47 Chinook crewman supports aerial transportation of participants during PATRIOT 24, Camp Shelby, Mississippi, Feb. 20, 2024 (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Jessica Hulbert)

A bipartisan group of House lawmakers is demanding answers from the Army National Guard on its plans to pay delinquent enlistment bonuses to the thousands of soldiers who are owed.

In a letter Tuesday to Gen. Daniel Hokanson, the National Guard's top officer, Reps. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz.; Mike Waltz, R-Fla.; and Trent Kelly, R-Miss., questioned how the service component has seemingly bungled how it pays its troops after Military.com reported it is behind on paying about 13,000 soldiers their enlistment bonuses.

Most recently, the Army National Guard sent out thousands of letters to former soldiers regarding potentially missed bonuses -- asking them to figure out whether they're owed money. The Guard pointed them to a series of bureaucratic and time-consuming hurdles, including gathering service documentation that may be difficult to obtain.

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"Civilians are not required to navigate through an extensive, monthslong claims process just to get the payments they were promised doing their job," lawmakers wrote to Hokanson. "It is deeply disappointing that the Guard believes that they can withhold payment when it involves our men and women in uniform."

The issue has gotten so out of control, nearly 4,000 of those 13,000 soldiers are estimated to have completed an entire contract, usually four to six years, and have since left the Guard without bonuses initially promised when they signed up. The bonuses can be up to $20,000.

Instead of outright telling those former service members what they are owed, the Army National Guard has instead placed the onus on them to figure it out. It's also unclear whether the Guard has updated addresses for veterans or why it can't parse through who is and isn't owed a bonus.

The lawmakers in the group are all veterans. Kelly serves as the National Guard assistant adjutant general in Mississippi.

In the letter, they included a series of questions for the Guard, including whether it has an appeals process for veterans who may end up being denied payments; how the Guard plans to support those without proper documentation; and why Guard officials burdened veterans to begin with.

"Beyond severely impacting recruitment and retention, it signals a lack of respect for their service," the lawmakers added in the letter. "Particularly for our enlisted men and women."

Soldiers are typically paid their bonuses in two chunks: when they complete their initial training and halfway through their contract. The National Guard Bureau aims for bonuses to be paid out within 30 days of those milestones, but that is not codified into policy. On average, it takes six months for soldiers to be paid when the process runs smoothly.

Meanwhile, the bonus backlog has been ongoing for years and is due to a variety of issues.

Some Guard officials have described to Military.com that some states have poorly trained or poorly performing staff to process the benefits. It isn't uncommon for state-level staff to manually track bonuses on pieces of paper or dry erase boards, leading to numerous errors.

The backlog was particularly inflamed by two 10-month outages of the Army National Guard Incentive Management System, or GIMS, which manages bonuses. The system crashed in 2018 due to a fire in the Pentagon's servers and again in 2021 in an unrelated incident.

The news also comes amid an ongoing recruiting crisis. While there's little evidence enlistment bonuses have much of a direct impact on recruiting, they do sweeten the deal and can direct applicants to jobs in the service that are in more desperate need of being filled.

The Army is also in the midst of reviewing its education benefits for possible cuts as costs have ballooned, Military.com first reported. Congress and some veteran advocacy groups have signaled they would put up enormous resistance to the service cutting benefits.

Related: The Army National Guard Owes Thousands of Former Soldiers Unpaid Bonuses. It's Asking Them to Figure It Out.

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