The Pentagon ordered about 10,000 military vets and retired soldiers from the California Army National Guard to return cash bonuses they received when they reenlisted for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars ten years ago.
Pentagon officials said audits revealed that the California Guard fraudulently set many of those bonuses to too high levels to quickly attract recruits as enlistment deadlines were approaching.
Soldiers now say their only fault was they took those bonuses. Many of them said they have no means to repay them as the overpayments usually amounted to $15,000 for each recruit or even more.
The Pentagon, however, is adamant in its decision. It even threatened servicemen, many of whom risked their lives in the two wars, that they would face fines or have to deal with debt collectors if they didn’t comply.
Service Members’ Reactions
Iraq veteran Christopher Van Meter, 42, now owes the U.S. Army $25,000. In the meantime, he also struggles to repay an old student loan of $21,000. Van Meter managed to repay the debt to the army after he refinanced his home.
But he told an LA Times reporter that the bonuses were designed to attract people in.
“People like me just got screwed,”
the veteran concluded.
But there are other soldiers who refuse to repay the bonuses. Retired sergeant Robert Richmond, 48, said he owes the military $15,000. The Army sent him a letter saying he must return the money because he was ineligible for the bonus as he had been in the army for two decades before the reenlistment.
Richmond said he signed a contract that could have cost his life. A roadside bomb attack in the Iraq war caused him permanent injury. So, he urged lawmakers to tell the Pentagon that what it does is wrong.
On Saturday, an LA Times investigation revealed bad management and fraud within the system caused the overpayments. California Guard acknowledged that asking back the money from soldiers was wrong.
One official said that veterans will pay the highest price in the whole story. California Guard officials noted they would gladly erase the debts but they can’t, as it is against the law.
Congress May Step In
The scandal sparked outrage in the U.S. Congress as well, but it remains unclear whether congressional members would do anything about it.
On Monday, US Rep. Darrell Issa said veterans who risked their lives for the country “do not deserve” the debt. Issa urged Defense Secretary Ash Carter to stop going after veterans’ money.
Issa argued that soldiers should not pay for the “inappropriate promises” recruiters made in 2006. He believes the problem can be solved with an amendment to the federal law that establishes the budget and expenditures of the Defense Department, the NDAA.
Issa also urged members of the Armed Services committee to act. He wrote them a letter saying the nation’s veterans should not be held liable for a decade-old “bureaucratic malfeasance and corruption.” The House Armed Services committee said the report “deeply concerned” them. The committee pledged to work with the National Guard and Pentagon to solve the issue.
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