WASHINGTON -- Defense Department officials have established a process to handle the resolution of bonuses paid erroneously several years ago to thousands of California National Guard soldiers, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook told reporters at the Pentagon Tuesday.

In October, Defense Secretary Ash Carter had directed the suspension of all efforts to recoup money from the soldiers. "He also asked the department to come up with a streamlined, centralized process to ensure the fair and equitable treatment of our service members and the rapid resolution of cases by Jan. 1," Cook said.

CASE PROCESS OUTLINED

Peter Levine, performing the duties of acting undersecretary for personnel and readiness, led the process team, and he updated reporters Tuesday on how the Department of Defense is resolving cases with a new process involving some 17,500 California Guard members who could face recoupment.

Levine emphasized that recoupment is a fact of life, and the Army averages 100,000 such cases at any given time. "Sometimes the member makes a mistake, sometimes the service does," he noted.

Since the secretary's October announcement, Levine said, he has worked closely with the National Guard Bureau, the Army Audit Agency, the Army Review Boards Agency and the Defense Finance and Accounting Service to set up a process for the California cases.

Levine said the process involves screening cases to determine whether sufficient information is available for resolution and placing what he called the "hard cases" before the Army Board for Correction of Military Records for an individualized review in which the soldiers will have an opportunity to make their case.

CALIFORNIA'S 17,500 CASES

The 17,500 cases were put into two categories, Levine said. The first category, which includes about 1,400 cases, consists of cases which the California National Guard had referred to the Defense Finance and Accounting Service for recoupment after establishing that debts for the cases existed.

The Army Audit Agency and the Army Review Board Agency reviewed those cases, Levine said, based on whether the service members fulfilled their service commitment and whether the service members had any obvious reason to believe they had received an erroneous payment.

"We think we can get rid of about half of the cases on that basis," he said. "So [for] half of the 1,400, we would expect to be notifying soldiers that they're being relieved of any debt." If they have already been subject to recoupment, he added, they will be reimbursed.

The California National Guard flagged the remaining cases for review. Guard officials notified many soldiers that they could face debt collection, but haven't taken further action, Levine explained. "So those 16,000, essentially the Sword of Damocles is hanging over the soldiers, but debt collection hadn't been started," he added.

Cases that remain unresolved at that point will then undergo the same process as the 1,400 for which a debt had been established before this effort began.

"The bottom line is we expect … several hundred cases -- but in all likelihood, fewer than 1,000 -- to go before the Boards for Correction of Military Records," Levine said.

SOLDIERS CAN PRESENT THEIR CASES

In each of those cases, he explained, the soldier will have an opportunity to present his or her argument that, even though there is doubt sufficient to bring the case before a records correction board, the doubt is insufficient to justify debt collection and, therefore, the debt should be forgiven.

"We are very hopeful that we will not have any kind of similar problems going forward," Levine concluded. "The bottom line is we think we've met the secretary's goal of rapid, equitable treatment for our soldiers, and that we have in place a process that will protect the taxpayers but will also be fair to our soldiers in terms of collecting debts."