Washington, D.C. — The U.S. Pentagon has ordered approximately 10,000 California military veterans and current soldiers to repay enlistment bonuses received a decade ago before going to Iraq and Afghanistan to fight a war.
Because the US military was short of soldiers at the time, the California National Guard offered bonuses of $15,000 or more to thousands as an inducement to reenlist and go off to war in the Middle East.
But the Pentagon has now decided that it wants the money back.
Worse, the soldiers and veterans are being threatened with interest charges, wage garnishments, and tax liens if they refuse or are unable to pay up. Many of the bonus recipients served multiple combat tours.
A federal investigation into the enlistment bonuses began in 2010. Examiners discovered that a lack of supervision of the enlistment bonus process led to extensive mismanagement of funds and possibly even fraud by officials with the California National Guard who were pressured by superiors to reach critical enlistment goals.
Audits of the bonuses revealed substantial overpayments by the National Guard in California at the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan War, the armed conflict that started when a US-led coalition invaded Iraq in 2003. Thousands of bonuses as well as student loan payments were improperly distributed to the soldiers.
The Pentagon says that improperly distributed enlistment bonuses and student loan payments occurred in every state, but that more of these took place in California than elsewhere because the state has 17,000 soldiers.
Meanwhile, soldiers and veterans say they feel betrayed about having to repay their bonuses.
For example, Christopher Van Meter — a 42-year-old Iraq War veteran, former Army captain, and Purple Heart recipient — says,
“These bonuses were used to keep people in.” He continues, “People like me just got screwed.”
Pressured to repay $25,000 in reenlistment bonuses as well as $21,000 in student loan repayments that the military now claims were improperly disbursed to him, Van Meter has had to refinance his home mortgage.
Another California veteran, retired Army major Robert D’Andrea, says he was ordered to repay $20,000 because investigators were unable to locate a copy of his reenlistment contract.
“Everything takes months of work, and there is no way to get your day in court.” He adds, “Some benefit of the doubt has to be given to the soldier.”
Asked about the forced repayments, Major General Matthew Beevers, currently the Deputy Commander of the California National Guard, states,
“At the end of the day, the soldiers ended up paying the largest price.”
Like many other soldiers and vets, D’Andrea is appealing the order.
The California National Guard is helping soldiers and veterans such as D’Andrea file appeals with agencies that can erase the debts. But there’s no guarantee that the soldiers and veterans will win their appeals.
Moreover, the Guard says it has to follow the law and collect the money.
As Major General Beevers observes,
“We’d be more than happy to absolve these people of their debts. We just can’t do it. We’d be breaking the law.”
So far, the Pentagon has recovered more than $22 million in repayments by the vets and soldiers.