SACRAMENTO, Oct. 24 (UPI) -- The Pentagon is demanding repayment of bonus money given to California National Guard members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Nearly 10,000 soldiers, who agreed to re-enlist and fight in combat a decade ago, when the military was short of troops, have been ordered to return their recruitment bonuses of $15,000 or more, the Los Angeles Times reported. Audits revealed overpayments by the California National Guard, and determined that a lack of oversight allowed for widespread fraud and mismanagement by National Guard officials as they sought to meet recruitment targets.
The citizen soldiers say the military is defaulting on agreements, and imposing hardships -- which include interest charges, wage garnishments and tax liens if the bonuses are not repaid -- on veterans who re-enlisted.
"These bonuses were used to keep people in," said Christopher Van Meter, 42, a former Army captain, Iraq veteran and Purple Heart recipient who told the Times he refinanced his home mortgage to repay $25,000 in re-enlistment bonuses and $21,000 in student loan repayments. "People like me just got screwed."
The bonuses were meant to retain soldiers only in high-demand assignments, such as in intelligence and civil affairs, as well as for non-commissioned officers; the ranks in those categories were badly depleted in units sent to Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The system paid everybody up front, and then we spent the next five years figuring out if they were eligible." said Col. Michael S. Piazzoni, a California National Guard official who oversaw the audits.
The National Guard Bureau, a Department of Defense agency, acknowledged bonus overpayments occurred in every state, but California had the most liberal use of the bonuses. A federal investigation revealed that California National Guard members received thousands of bonuses and student loan payments, although they did not qualify for them. In 2011 Master Sgt. Toni Jaffe, incentive manager for the California National Guard, pleaded guilty to filing false claims of $15.2 million and received 30 months in federal prison; three officers pleaded guilty to fraud and were obligated to paying restitution.
A statement Monday by the California Military Department said, "The bonus audit and recoupment process is a federal program governed and adjudicated by the National Guard Bureau and the Department of the Army. The California National Guard does not have the authority to unilaterally waive these debts.
"However, the California National Guard welcomes any law passed by Congress to waive these debts... [It established] the California National Guard Soldier Incentives Assistance Center which has allowed our soldiers to retain $37 million dollars of original bonus payments. Without this initiative 100 percent of the soldiers would have had to pay back 100 percent of the money. It is our intent to continue working with all parties involved to further advocate for our soldiers."
About $22 million has been recovered from the veterans thus far.