Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Outrage Walkback

Associated Press does a fair job here of following up on an outrage (one the organization initially helped stoke) and discovering it was an aberration, not a trend.

A wounded Iraq war veteran came forward last month to say the Pentagon asked him to repay a large chunk of his enlistment bonus, and Congress was outraged.

Lawmakers condemned the practice, and more than 250 signed on to sponsor legislation designed to right the wrong. They promised to rein in the heartless government bureaucrats who dared to implement a policy that could snatch soldiers' money away like this.

Problem is, there doesn't appear to be much of a problem.

Only a handful of cases have been found in which a wounded soldier was asked to repay a bonus, and those turned out to be clerical mistakes.

But Iraq is such an emotional issue that initial reports of mistreated veterans put many in Congress into a state of high dudgeon.

"It's just a disgrace," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., estimating that the policy affected hundreds of veterans in his state alone.

"Unthinkable," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican.

It "shocks the conscience," said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. "This policy is outrageous and should be reversed immediately."

Those watching such developments say the problem appears to have been wildly overstated.

"We're six years into a war. The military's been paying enlistment bonuses for a while, and we would have heard a lot about it" if it were happening, said Joe Davis, a spokesman for Veterans of Foreign Wars. "There are other issues that are more important for the Congress to be taking up."

The Pentagon says it has received just two complaints on the issue since a "wounded warrior" hotline was set up this summer.

Pentagon policy and practice for at least 20 years has been to fully pay enlistment bonuses to soldiers forced to leave the military early for reasons beyond their control, such as a combat injury, according to Bill Carr, deputy undersecretary of defense.

Even though the media artfully airbrushes itself from the back-story (initial AP reports painted the story in "outrage" terminology, and the politicians had no choice but respond in kind or be pilloried for it), the AP at least does the right thing in setting the record straight. Many weeks later. In a story that moved quietly over the transom and wasn't recommended for the front-page treatment the initial "outrage" story got.

But be thankful for the little things. If you see this piece in your hometown paper, try not to drop dead of shock. I doubt you will see it there, though.