This is the kind of story that makes your blood boil. In California, thousands of soldiers who reenlisted during wartime to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan were given reenlistment bonuses for doing so. The bonuses were a financial lifeline for a lot of soldiers and for some they must have been a deciding factor in their decision to reenlist and go back to the warzone. These men and women kept their end of the bargain and put their lives at risk but now the government is reneging because of its own error. Now soldiers face wage garnishment, interest charges, and tax liens for accepting money offered to them by the military.
Nearly 10,000 soldiers, many of whom served multiple combat tours, have been ordered to repay large enlistment bonuses — and slapped with interest charges, wage garnishments and tax liens if they refuse — after audits revealed widespread overpayments by the California Guard at the height of the wars last decade.
Investigations have determined that lack of oversight allowed for widespread fraud and mismanagement by California Guard officials under pressure to meet enlistment targets.
But soldiers say the military is reneging on 10-year-old agreements and imposing severe financial hardship on veterans whose only mistake was to accept bonuses offered when the Pentagon needed to fill the ranks.
“These bonuses were used to keep people in,” said Christopher Van Meter, a 42-year-old former Army captain and Iraq veteran from Manteca, Calif., who says he refinanced his home mortgage to repay $25,000 in reenlistment bonuses and $21,000 in student loan repayments that the Army says he should not have received. “People like me just got screwed.”
In Iraq, Van Meter was thrown from an armored vehicle turret — and later awarded a Purple Heart for his combat injuries — after the vehicle detonated a buried roadside bomb.
Military personnel probably know better than most that crap rolls downhill, but this is truly outrageous. People like Van Meter are being punished because representatives of the government were guilty of mismanagement and fraud.
Susan Haley, a Los Angeles native and former Army master sergeant who deployed to Afghanistan in 2008, said she sends the Pentagon $650 a month — a quarter of her family’s income — to pay down $20,500 in bonuses that the Guard says were given to her improperly.
“I feel totally betrayed,” said Haley, 47, who served 26 years in the Army along with her husband and oldest son, a medic who lost a leg in combat in Afghanistan.
Haley, who now lives in Kempner, Texas, worries they may have to sell their house to repay the bonuses. “They’ll get their money, but I want those years back,” she said, referring to her six-year reenlistment.
The Deputy Commander of the California National Guard, Maj. Gen. Matthew Beevers says, “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.”
Are they really “their debts” though? These men and women are victims of fraud committed by the government, yet they are being held accountable for making the government whole. That’s insane. Why not cancel a couple of presidential vacations and call it even?
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.
Army Master Sgt. Toni Jaffe, the California Guard’s incentive manager, pleaded guilty in 2011 to filing false claims of $15.2 million and was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison. Three officers also pleaded guilty to fraud and were put on probation after paying restitution.
No one can drag out the legal process quite like the government. Many of these soldiers get worn down trying to fight it and eventually give in, placing themselves and their families in financial hardship. They fought America’s enemies abroad and returned home to fight a losing battle against the government. It’s shameful.