Payment error hits National Guard members’ wallets
Military | Soldiers in California struggle to pay back bonuses after fraud discovered
by Michael Cochrane
Posted 10/25/16, 02:00 pm
UPDATE (10/26/16, 11:30 a.m.): U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter ordered Pentagon officials this morning to suspend all efforts to seek bonus repayments from California National Guard members. Carter has given Defense Department officials until Jan. 1 to create a streamlined process for dealing with the fraudulent bonus debacle. Although some of the 2,000 National Guard members who received the re-enlistment bonuses “through no fault of their own” will see some form of relief from the repayment requirement, those who took the money knowing they didn’t qualify should not expect the same level of financial forgiveness.
OUR EARLIER REPORT: The Pentagon and congressional leaders are looking for a way to provide relief for thousands of California National Guard soldiers who have been told they must pay back re-enlistment bonuses handed out a decade ago.
An investigation of a program created in the mid-2000s to pay re-enlistment bonuses of up to $15,000 to soldiers in high demand specialties such as intelligence and civil affairs revealed that, under pressure to meet re-enlistment targets, Guard officials paid bonuses to thousands of soldiers ineligible to receive them, according to the Los Angeles Times. Three California Guard officers and a senior enlisted soldier pleaded guilty in 2010 to fraud charges as a result of the investigation.
The California National Guard audited the records of bonuses given to 14,000 soldiers and found that 9,700 current or retired soldiers must repay some or all of their bonuses. The effort has netted more than $22 million so far, but has placed many soldiers in severe financial straits.
“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. He told the Times he refinanced his home mortgage to repay $25,000 in re-enlistment bonuses and $21,000 in student loan repayments that the Army said he should not have received. “People like me just got screwed.”
California National Guard officials have expressed frustration over the situation, but say federal law ties their hands and only the Pentagon with an act of Congress could wipe out the debts.
“We didn’t have authority to waive any debts,” Col. Peter Cross, a spokesman for the California Guard, told the Times.
Media coverage of the issue over the weekend prompted members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to call for action to help financially burdened soldiers.
“Our military heroes should not shoulder the burden of military recruiters’ faults from over a decade ago,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said in a statement. “They should not owe for what was promised during a difficult time in our country.”
Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, told the Times, “The solution to this ridiculous situation is an act of Congress. … I am appalled by the California National Guard’s effort to claw back bonuses and benefits improperly paid to service members 10 years ago.”
Maj. Gen. Matthew Beevers, the California National Guard’s No. 2 officer, told The Washington Post a 2014 effort by the Guard to get Congress to pass legislation that would have waived repayments for affected soldiers stalled on Capitol Hill. But the general added McCarthy has expressed interest in sponsoring new legislation to grant relief to the soldiers, according to the Post.
Michael is a retired Defense Department engineer and former Army officer who is an adjunct professor of engineering management at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. He is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Follow Michael on Twitter @MFCochrane.