A Pentagon effort to recoup enlistment bonuses for thousands of California National Guard soldiers over a decade since they served in Iraq and Afghanistan has earned widespread condemnation, and lawmakers are calling for the Pentagon and Congress to waive their debts.
The Pentagon demands repayment of bonuses which reached $15,000 or more. California Guard recruiters gave the bonuses out between 2006 and 2008 when the National Guard faced a shortage of troops to fight two unpopular wars. The Pentagon conducted a federal investigation in 2010 which found that thousands of bonuses and student loan payments were improperly given out to California National Guard soldiers. (Army Master Sgt. Toni Jaffe, the California National Guard’s Bonus and Incentive manager was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison after pleading guilty in 2011 to filing $15.2 million in false claims.) About 9,700 current and retired soldiers received notices to repay some or all of their bonuses. Soldiers who refuse to pay face “interest charges, wage garnishments and tax liens,” according to one report. The federal government has recovered $22 million thus far.
Susan Haley, who served 26 years in the Army and now owes the federal government $20,500, considers having to repay her bonus a “total” act of betrayal. “I didn’t knowingly accept money I wasn’t supposed to have. They wanted me to reenlist, and I was assured everything was fine,” she said. Haley says she received the first collection notice from the government in 2012 while at a Texas military hospital visiting her son, an Army medic who was seriously injured in Afghanistan. “It said I had improperly been given a signing bonus to reenlist and that I had to pay all the money back with interest or I would be in violation of federal law,” Haley said. “I freaked out.” Haley now sends the Pentagon $650 a month, a quarter of her family’s income, and fears they will lose their home. “I haven’t paid yet this month,” she said. “I don’t have the money.”
“These bonuses were used to keep people in,” said Christopher Van Meter, a 42-year-old former Army captain and Iraq veteran who was awarded a Purple Heart for his service. “People like me just got screwed.” Van Meter was forced to refinance his home mortgage to repay $25,000 in enlistment bonuses and $21,000 in student loans the military says he should not have received.
The California National Guard says federal law bars them from erasing the debts: Only the Pentagon has that authority. “At the end of the day, the soldiers ended up paying the largest price,” Maj. Gen. Matthew Beevers, deputy commander of the California Guard, told the Los Angeles Times. “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.” Officials with the National Guard say they are helping soldiers file appeals with agencies that can erase the debts, but soldiers say
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