Photo credit: Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times
Thousands of veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan are feeling betrayed by the very military who enticed them to re-enlist with generous, upfront bonuses.
The Pentagon has now decided that the California National Guard paid out millions in bonuses and student loan payments in error about 10 years ago, and they want the money back. Many veterans now don’t have it, or are being forced to make monthly payments.
One veteran, Susan Haley, who served 26 years in the Army, said they she may have to sell her home to repay the bonuses. “They’ll get their money, but I want those years back,” she said, in reference to her six-year re-enlistment.
A decade ago, the military was short on troops to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq, so the National Guard in every state started offering upfront bonuses for soldiers to re-enlist, reports the LA Times.
The bonuses were intended for soldiers in high-demand assignments, such as intelligence and civil affairs, or noncommissioned officers. Instead, the California Guard, who has about 17,000 soldiers, were giving it out to everyone.
In 2011, several officers responsible were penalized. The California Guard’s incentive manager, Army Master Sgt. Toni Jaffe, pleaded guilty to filing false claims of $15.2 million and was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison. Three other officers pleaded guilty to fraud, had to pay restitution, and were put on probation.
Last month, 42 auditors completed reviewing paperwork on 14,000 soldiers, and have told almost 10,000 current and retired soldiers that they must repay their bonuses – even though it was the military who was at fault.
The Pentagon has recovered more than $22 million so far, but some soldiers are appealing the decision, or refusing to comply.
Current and former California guard members interviewed described being offered generous terms for six-year re-enlistments in 2006 and 2007.
Robert Richmond said he agreed to re-enlist after being told he qualified for a $15,000 bonus. He has already paid for the decision – his vehicle was hit with a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2007, leaving him with permanent back and brain injuries. In 2014 he suddenly received a letter telling him to repay the $15,000 or face debt collection action.
He has filed multiple appeals, and received a warning in March that his unpaid debt has now risen to $19,694. With the debt on his credit report, he can’t even qualify for a home loan.
“I signed a contract that I literally risked my life to fulfill,” Richmond said bitterly. “We want somebody in the government, anybody, to say this is wrong and we’ll stop going after this money.”
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