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PR Perspectives: Fog of “War Bonuses” Leaves Defense Department in a PR Snafu

armed forces recruiting, Gary Frisch, Marketing, Pr, PR mess, PR perspectives, PR snafu, Public relations, Swordfish Communications, veteran bonuses, war bonuses, with interestBy Gary Frisch, Founder and President, Swordfish Communications

With interest.”

Those two words, uttered by a TV news reporter, put a fine point on the Defense Department’s current imbroglio involving bonus money mistakenly paid to California National Guard soldiers who were coaxed to reenlist at the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Those dedicated service members, who left their families, returned to war zones, and put their lives at risk, have been asked to repay those bonuses—in some cases over $40,000—along with interest.

Some have had to remortgage their homes to help pay the Pentagon back funds that were supposed to be a carrot for select soldiers who possessed much-needed skill sets, but instead were offered like Halloween candy by recruiters who no doubt were trying to meet quotas. The military’s mistake years ago is piercing a hole in thousands of families as surely as an enemy bullet. The backlash since the story came to light earlier this month has been fierce, and words like “with interest” don’t help assuage the public outrage.

If you’re thinking a PR mess of this magnitude isn’t significant for a government agency in the way phony accounts and fees has tarnished Wells Fargo, think again. Recruiting efforts will likely suffer for years, as this incident has shed light on long-rumored fraud in the process that has been satirized in movies going back to Stripes and Private Benjamin. “See the world, earn a good living, get free room and board, and for a short time collect a bonus just for signing!”

Congress, which holds the purse strings for the military, will invariably call into question how that money has been managed, or doled out, and would be within its rights to launch a full slate of hearings to find out how this kind of thing could happen. Budget money may be clawed back just as the Pentagon has been trying to claw back the ersatz bonuses. It has already ordered the California Guard to turn over relevant documents pertaining to the program, and some lawmakers, including Rep. Jason Chavetz, are calling for those who managed the bonus program to be held accountable.

To his credit, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has instructed the Pentagon to stop collection efforts. It is a good and expected first step, however this move comes too late for many families, and is clearly a case of damage control after the error and its ramifications on our warriors became front-page news. It is much like Roger Goodell bringing the hammer down on Ray Rice only after video of him punching out his fiancée in an elevator went viral.  Sadly, and exasperatingly, doing the right thing often means waiting until you are forced to do the right thing.

“I wish this happened a week ago. My wife just cut a check for $650 to cover this month’s payment,” said Don Haley, who along with his wife served the Guard in Iraq, and whose son lost a leg fighting in Afghanistan.

While it’s possible the timing of this news was politically motivated—after all, one candidate for president has been decrying the treatment of our veterans at every opportunity—it couldn’t have come a moment too soon for the Haleys and many others in their situation. Nonetheless, this will leave the Defense Department with a major black eye, and I’m not talking about grease paint.

Gary Frisch is founder and president of Swordfish Communications, a full-service public relations agency in Laurel Springs, N.J. He was selected as a Linkedin Top Voice for 2015.

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