Ten years ago, the California National Guard enticed thousands of soldiers with bonuses of $15,000 or more if they re-enlisted or went to war in Iraq or Afghanistan, and now the Pentagon is demanding that the soldiers pay the money back.
The Los Angeles Times reports that nearly 10,000 soldiers have been ordered to repay large enlistment bonuses after audits revealed widespread overpayments by the California Guard. The soldiers have been slapped with interest charges, wage garnishments and tax liens if they refuse to pay.
The Times reports that a lack of oversight led to the overpayments. Only soldiers in specified job capacities were supposed to have been eligible for the monetary benefits, but in the rush to fill the ranks during the long war, the bonuses were given out too liberally.
Auditors found that the system had paid many soldiers without first determining their eligibility. Soldiers who served multiple tours in war zones are now being forced to pay back money they were given, 10 years after they served.
In other words, veterans are being forced to pay for mistakes made at the bureaucratic level.
Former Army Capt. Christopher Van Meter, 42, fought in Iraq. He told the Times that he refinanced his mortgage to repay $25,000 in re-enlistment bonuses and $21,000 in student loan payments.
“People like me just got screwed,” Van Meter said.
Former Army Master Sgt. Susan Haley served in Afghanistan and spent more than 25 years in the service. She is sending the Pentagon $650 a month, 25 percent of her family’s income, to repay $20,500 in bonuses.
“I feel totally betrayed,” Haley said.
The California National Guard’s use of bonus money was part of a scandal unearthed in 2010 when it was reported that as much as $100 million had been misspent. Master Sgt. Toni Jaffe, the former leader of the program, pleaded guilty to making $15 million in false claims and was sentenced to 30 months in prison.
While veterans like Van Meter and Haley are working to repay the money, others are filing appeals, a process that is likely to be long and taxing. California National Guard officials say that they have been helping veterans through the process.
"We'd be more than happy to absolve these people of their debts," Maj. Gen. Matthew Beevers, deputy commander of the California National Guard, said. "We just can't do it. We'd be breaking the law."
Read more at the Los Angeles Times.