“They’ll get their money, but I want those years back”
The members of the California National Guard are awesome.
These soldiers are on the frontlines of the huge wildfires this state frequently experiences. They have been called upon to deal with the riots and civil unrest that sometimes plague our cities. They have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan during our “War on Terror”.
Now, the Pentagon is asking the men and women to repay enlistment bonuses they received.
Short of troops to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan a decade ago, the California National Guard enticed thousands of soldiers with bonuses of $15,000 or more to reenlist and go to war.
Now the Pentagon is demanding the money back.
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.
The soldiers are feeling as if they just got shot with fiscal friendly fire.
“These bonuses were used to keep people in,” said Christopher Van Meter, a 42-year-old former Army captain and Iraq veteran who was awarded a Purple Heart. “People like me just got screwed.”
Van Meter said he refinanced his home mortgage to repay $25,000 in re-enlistment bonuses and $21,000 in student loan repayments that the military says was improperly given to him.
The payback is taking a large chunk of income from many middle-class families.
Susan Haley, a Los Angeles native and former Army master sergeant who deployed to Afghanistan in 2008, said she feels betrayed. She said she sends the Pentagon $650 a month — a quarter of her family’s income — to pay down her debt to the military.
“They’ll get their money, but I want those years back,” said Haley, who served for six years.
California Guard officials indicated that they are helping soldiers and veterans file appeals with agencies that can erase the debts. However, there are no guarantees that the debt will be forgiven.
Retired Army major and Iraq veteran Robert D’Andrea said he was told to repay his $20,000 because auditors could not find a copy of the contract he says he signed.
D’Andrea appealed and is running out of options.
“Everything takes months of work, and there is no way to get your day in court,” he said. “Some benefit of the doubt has to be given to the soldier.”
Bryan Strother, a sergeant first class from Oroville north of Sacramento, has filed a class-action lawsuit in February in federal district court in Sacramento on behalf of all soldiers who got bonuses. The suit asked the court to order the recovered money to be returned to the soldiers and to issue an injunction against the government barring further collection.
Shortly after that filing, lawyers for U.S. Atty. Phillip A. Talbert in Sacramento petitioned the court to dismiss Strother’s lawsuit, on the basis that it was moot because his debt had been waived. A federal judge plans to rule on this by January.
I wish Strother good luck. Many in our government now seem more inclined to dish out social justice instead of the real kind.
Our soldiers get many intense lessons on battlefield tactics. Too bad they did not receive similar lessons on legal battle strategy when dealing with the government that they served.
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