A decade ago, the California National Guard offered thousands of soldiers large bonuses to reenlist and go to war. After investigations discovered fraud and mismanagement involving those payments, the Pentagon is demanding the money back, making veterans pay for the government’s mistakes.
Nearly 10,000 soldiers — many of whom served in multiple combat tours — have been ordered to repay large enlistment bonuses (of $15,000 or more), the Los Angeles Times reported. Worse, if the veterans refuse, the Pentagon uses interest charges, wage garnishments, and tax liens to recoup the money.
“I feel totally betrayed,” Susan Haley, a 26-year veteran and former Army master sergeant who deployed to Afghanistan in 2008, told the Los Angeles Times.
Haley comes from a family of heroes: her husband also served, and her eldest son lost a leg in Afghanistan while serving as a medic. Haley said she sends the Pentagon $650 every month, a quarter of her family’s income, just to pay the $20,500 in bonuses which was given to her improperly, in exchange for her six-year reenlistment. Haley said she fears her family may have to sell their house to repay the bonuses.
“They’ll get their money, but I want those years back,” she declared.
“It’s egregious that veterans who sacrificed their lives for this country are being asked to retroactively pay the price for sloppy government miscalculations,” Mark Lucas, executive director at Concerned Veterans for America (CVA) and a 13-year veteran of the Iowa Army National Guard, told PJ Media. “The California Guard is showing no remorse as it yanks the rug out from under the very heroes it once asked to serve.”
Lucas said that he was not surprised at the bureaucratic mix-up, but that does not make it any better. “This is par for the course from a bureaucratic Pentagon that wastes billions of dollars each year on failed projects and mismanaged funds,” he said. “American veterans and taxpayers alike deserve better from the agency entrusted with over half of our national federal budget each year.”
The enlistment bonuses came at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as the Pentagon aimed to bulk up forces. Investigations from that time period determined that a lack of oversight allowed widespread fraud and mismanagement by California Guard officials under pressure to meet their enlistment goals. In other words, the government told officials they needed to hire a certain number of soldiers, and they fudged the numbers in order to bribe more veterans to reenlist.
During that time, the Pentagon started offering the most generous incentives in history to retain soldiers. It also began paying the money up front, like signing bonuses in the private sector.
In 2010, a federal investigation found that thousands of bonuses and student loan payments were given to California Guard soldiers who did not qualify for them, or whose applications had paperwork errors, according to the Times.
Army Master Sgt. Toni Jaffe, the California Guard’s incentive manager, pled guilty in 2011 to filing false claims of $15.2 million and was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison. Three other officers also pled guilty to fraud and were put on probation after paying restitution.
Rather than forgiving the improper bonuses, the California Guard sent 42 auditors to comb through paperwork for such bonuses and other incentive payments given to 14,000 veterans. The process was completed last month, and roughly 9,700 current and retired soldiers have been ordered to repay some or all of their bonuses. The effort has recovered more than $22 million so far.
While the National Guard Bureau acknowledged that bonus overpayments occurred in every state, California, one of the largest state Guard operations with 17,000 soldiers, featured the worst excesses.
“At the end of the day, the soldiers ended up paying the largest price,” admitted Maj. Gen. Matthew Beevers, deputy commander of the California Guard. “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.”
Next Page: “People like me just got screwed.” Veterans tell stories of this bait-and-switch.
In interviews with the Times, current and former members of the California Guard recalled mass meetings in 2006 and 2007 where officials signed up soldiers in assembly-line fashion after outlining generous terms.
“People like me just got screwed,” Christopher Van Meter, a 42-year-old former Army captain who was awarded a Purple Heart for combat injuries in Iraq, told the L.A. Times. Van Meter also said he refinanced his home mortgage to repay $25,000 in reenlistment bonuses and $21,000 in student loan repayments that the Army now says he should not have received.
Army Sergeant First Class Robert Richmond told the Times he reenlisted after being told he qualified for a $15,000 bonus. Having gone through a divorce after his deployment to Afghanistan in 2002 and 2003, Richmond took the cash to have some “breathing room.”
During his reenlistment, Richmond received permanent back and brain injuries from a roadside bomb in Iraq. In 2014, he received a letter telling him to repay the $15,000 and warning of “debt collection action” if he refused. He has filed numerous appeals, even after receiving a collection letter from the Treasury Department in March warning that his “unpaid delinquent debt” had risen to $19,694.62 including interest and penalties.
Richmond quit the California Guard to prevent money from being taken from his paycheck, and took a job as a railroad conductor in Nebraska. After being laid off, he took a construction job in Texas, leaving his family behind in Nebraska.
“I signed a contract that I literally risked my life to fulfill,” Richmond said. “We want somebody in the government, anybody, to say this is wrong and we’ll stop going after this money.”
While the California Guard said they are helping veterans file appeals with the National Guard Bureau and the Army Board for Correction of Military Records, which could wipe out the debts, soldiers complained that it is a long, frustrating process, and that there is no guarantee of success.
“Everything takes months of work, and there is no way to get your day in court,” retired Army Major Robert D’Andrea told the Times. D’Andrea was ordered to return a $20,000 bonus he received in 2008 due to a filing error. The veteran now serves as a financial crimes investigator with the Santa Monica Police Department, and said he is close to exhausting all his appeals.
Sergeant First Class Bryan Strother spent four years fighting claims that he owed the Guard $25,010.32 for mistaken bonuses and student loans. He described “a legal foot-dragging process to wear people out and make people go away” that proves “overwhelming for most soldiers.”
Such a situation puts a fiscal conservative in a tough place, because the taxpayers do not deserve to foot the bill, but making veterans repay those overly generous bonuses on such terms is, as the CVA spokesman declared, egregious. In any case, veterans who have been awarded the Purple Heart do not deserve such treatment.