Faced with the challenge of maintaining its all-volunteer military as wars dragged on in Iraq and Afghanistan in the mid-2000s, the Pentagon began offering its most generous incentives ever, issuing up-front bonuses to those who agreed to reenlist. The problem is that some of the recipients were ineligible.
The policy resulted in overpayments in every state, but nowhere were recruiters more generous than the California National Guard.
Now nearly 10,000 current and retired soldiers in The Golden State have been ordered to repay all or some of the bonuses they received to incentivize their return to war.
"We want somebody in the government, anybody, to say this is wrong and we’ll stop going after this money," Robert Richmond told The Los Angeles Times.
After being told he qualified for a $15,000 bonus as a special forces soldier, Mr. Richmond, an Army sergeant first class, reenlisted and deployed to Iraq, where he sustained injuries to his back and brain when a roadside bomb detonated.
Then, in 2014, he was shocked to receive a letter ordering him to repay the bonus or face "debt collection action." Richmond had served in the Army too long to be eligible, officials argued. He has appealed.
"I signed a contract that I literally risked my life to fulfill," Richmond said.
A collection letter he received from the Treasury Department in March warned that his debt, counting interest and penalties, had risen to nearly $19,700. Consequently, he has been unable to qualify for a home loan.
The California Guard's incentive manager, Army Master Sgt. Toni Jaffe, pleaded guilty in 2011 to filing false claims after reports of the improper payments came to light in 2010. She was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison, and three other officers who pleaded guilty to related charges were put on probation after paying restitution.
While those responsible for the misallocation of funds have been punished, the service members who received the improper bonuses are still suffering under the punishing debt. In a process that concluded last month, the California Guard audited incentive pay for 14,000 soldiers and determined that about 9,700 must repay some or all of their bonuses.
More than $22 million has been recouped thus far, but the process is likely to continue for years because of protests, appeals, and refusals, as the Times reported.
The money was part of the military's retention budget, which increased tenfold for some branches in as little as five years during the height of the wars, as The Christian Science Monitor reported in 2009.
"These bonuses were used to keep people in,” Christopher Van Meter, a former Army captain, told the Times. The Iraq veteran refinanced his home mortgage to pay back his $25,000 reenlistment bonuses plus $21,000 in student loan repayments.
Maj. Gen. Matthew Beevers, deputy commander of the California Guard, agrees that taking money back from veterans is distasteful.
“At the end of the day, the soldiers ended up paying the largest price,” Major General Beevers said. “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.”
Mr. Van Meter, who was awarded a Purple Heart for his injuries sustained in combat in Iraq, said he could not handle the stress and headaches the debt was inflicting.
"I couldn’t take it anymore," he said. "The amount of stress it put us through financially and emotionally was something we wanted to move past."
Material from The Associated Press was included in this report.