UPDATE: The Pentagon has suspended efforts to take back bonuses mistakenly paid to California National Guard members. More details to come.
Ten years ago, during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military was having a difficult time getting people to reenlist — after multiple deployments and time away from their families, among other reasons. So the U.S. government enticed soldiers to reenlist by offering them big bonuses — offers of up to $15,000.
Now, the Pentagon is demanding that thousands of U.S. veterans give the money back — including many who reenlisted and served multiple combat tours.
California National Guard orders veterans to pay back millions in enlistment bonuses
Years after enlistment bonuses were paid out, audits “revealed widespread overpayments by the California Guard,” according to a report by the Los Angeles Times.
Investigations determined that a lack of oversight led to widespread fraud and mismanagement of funds by California Guard officials, who were “under pressure” to meet enlistment goals.
Now, nearly 10,000 soldiers have been ordered to return the bonus money — and if they refuse, they will face interest charges, wage garnishments and tax liens.
Christopher Van Meter, who was awarded a Purple Heart for combat injuries he suffered Iraq, is one those veterans. In 2007, after serving 15 years in the Army, he was ready to retire — until the military encouraged him to reenlist with the promise of a reenlistment bonus.
“These bonuses were used to keep people in,” Van Meter told the Los Angeles Times.
After being ordered to repay $25,000 in reenlistment bonuses and $21,000 in student loan repyaments that the Army says he should not have received, Van Meter was forced to refinance his mortage.
People like me just got screwed. – Christopher Van Meter
Van Meter is just one of thousands of veterans who are now facing financial hardship thanks to “mismanagement” by the National Guard.
Former Army Master Sergeant Susan Haley, who deployed to Afghanistan in 2008, told the L.A. Times that she sends the Pentagon $650 every month — a quarter of her family’s income. She was ordered to pay back $20,500 in bonuses that the Guard says she never should have received — after she reenlisted and served six more years.
Haley told the L.A. times she feels “totally betrayed,” after she served 26 years in the Army — along with her husband and oldest son. Her son lost a leg in combat in Afghanistan. Now, Haley says her family may have to sell their home to pay back the money she owes.
They’ll get their money, but I want those years back. – Susan Haley
‘Mismanagement’ of bonus money
In an effort to retain soldiers in the mid-2000s, bonuses offered for reenlistment were some of the most generous in history. According to sources cited by the L.A. Times, the money was even being paid upfront.
The problem was that the bonuses were supposed to only be offered to soldiers with certain assignments, like intelligence and civil affairs, as well as to noncommissioned officers that the military needed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Pentagon says that bonus overpayments occurred in every state during the height of the two wars, but apparently none came close to the amount handed out in California, which is one of the largest Guard organizations with 17,000 soldiers.
According to the L.A. Times report, “In 2010, after reports surfaced of improper payments, 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 were approved despite paperwork errors.”
In 2011, California Guard’s incentive manager pleaded guilty to filing false claims and was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison. Three officers were put on probation after paying fines.
So far, soldiers have repaid about $22 million to the U.S. government.
An insult to America’s brave men and women
As a proud supporter of the U.S. military and member of the Georgia State Defense Force, Clark says what’s happening to these soldiers is simply “insulting.”
While the rest of us were here enjoying our lives, these people were fighting for you and me. And we need to treat them right. – Clark Howard
But instead of forgiving the bonuses that were paid out by mistake, the California Guard hired auditors to go through bonuses and other incentive payments given to 14,000 U.S. soldiers.
The only mistake these brave men and women made was taking the deal and trusting they would be taken care of in return for their service. But instead, what started as a financial opportunity for thousands of soldiers has now turned into a financial nightmare.