By Courtney Woodruff
Dear Mr. President,
My heart sank as the latest headline screamed words I’d hope to never see in the same sentence again: “Army National Guard” and “scandal.”
The military community is still shaken by the troubling events that occurred last year between the Guard and the National Football League, in which teams were paid exorbitant amounts of money to hold appreciation events for the troops in a fruitless attempt to raise rates of recruitment. This offense eventually led to Congress passing an act to ban “paid patriotism.”
Today, we are facing a similar crisis involving alleged fraudulent recruitment practices carried out by the California National Guard ten years ago. According to various news outlets, 6,500 soldiers were asked to re-pay $15,000 or more in wrongfully allocated reenlistment bonuses. Still, another 3,200 cases have yet to be processed, with the overall debt estimating to total more than $50 million. At this time, the Pentagon has ordered the Army National Guard to cease collection efforts; however, the damage has already been done– on both sides of the fence. This is just one of the many fires the American people are looking to you to put out as you prepare to vacate the Oval Office in January.
The Army values loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage. Men and women pledge their oath to our country for a number of reasons, but when all of them are stripped away, the only thing service members truly have left is the vulnerable trust they must place in their battle buddies and leadership figures, and in our government.
As a military spouse, it hurts to see thousands of soldiers and families who sacrificed so much in Iraq and Afghanistan a decade ago facing this overwhelming burden of debt today. Many of these service members are already struggling to overcome the ramifications of war, including disability, unemployment and high rates of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
A part of me believes these men and women have paid more than enough– and then some– in their own blood, sweat and tears.
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On the other hand, as an American citizen, it feels like a punch in the gut to know recruiters have “fired on soldiers” to line their own pockets with taxpayers’ money. When faced with situations like this, the trust that is such a vital component of the military community begins to crumble– and quickly. As the foundation falls apart, suspicion works its way in through the cracks, and that’s when the real damage begins.
As our military’s Commander-in-Chief, you have a responsibility to protect, provide for and guide our troops. But the military must reflect its core values in response to your call of duty, as well.
Should the debts be repaid? Yes … and no.
I stand by your decision to resist Congress’ urging to forgive the transgressions entirely. Of course, I want relief for our weary soldiers, but what would it say to the guilty parties if you were to simply brush this infraction under the rug?
What would it say to the military?
What would it say to the American people?
Whether or not the service members willingly played a part in the scandal, the law was broken. That much is clear. Those who participated in the acts of fraud owe it to their brothers- and sisters-in-arms, the nation’s taxpayers, and you to return every penny.
While I think it is important that we not cast a blanket of judgment on recruiters in offices throughout the country, recruitment, accounting, and reenlistment practices in all branches should be re-evaluated and regulated in the future. At this time, I have faith in Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s plan to expedite the process. I also trust that a fair and thorough investigation will reveal the guilty parties on a case by case basis, and I believe the service members involved should be assumed innocent until proven guilty.
Let us not allow this unfortunate circumstance divide us in these times of chaos and confusion. As cliché as it sounds, we are stronger when we are united. It isn’t always easy to see that when heated emotions get involved, but it is something I do my best to remember as my husband puts on his uniform every day.
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Instead, may we find a way to right our wrongs, learn from them, and continue to grow as both a military community and a nation so we do not repeat the same mistakes we have made in the past.
We can’t leave our fallen comrades behind.
Our veterans need you.
The wife of a U.S. soldier
Courtney is a military spouse, mom of 2 boys and part-time writer-editor for a travel & lifestyle magazine serving military families stationed in Europe. She has an MA in Human Services Counseling Military Resilience and hopes to share what little she has learned along the way to help others overcome the unique challenges of military life. You can follow her adventures at her blog, Courtney At Home, or through her social media: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.