Thousands in California, many of whom served in Iraq and Afghanistan, called on to return enlistment bonuses amid reported widespread overpayments
Thousands of soldiers in the California national guard, many of whom served active duty tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, are being asked to pay back large enlistment bonuses they received as much as 12 years ago.
The Los Angeles Times reported on Saturday that nearly 10,000 soldiers may be affected by the demands, after audits revealed widespread overpayments by the California guard at the height of the wars last decade.
Christopher Van Meter, a 42-year-old former army captain and Iraq veteran, told the Times he refinanced his home to pay $46,000 in bonus money and student loans which the army said he never should have received.
These bonuses were used to keep people in, Van Meter told the paper. People like me just got screwed.
In the mid-2000s, as wars continued in Afghanistan and Iraq, military officials throughout the US felt pressure to boost enrollment. At the peak of the simultaneous offensives, generous enlistment bonuses were one of the ways officials tried to solve the problem.
Overpayments occurred in every state during this period, according to the National Guard Bureau, the Pentagon agency that oversees state guard organizations. But payments were especially unwieldy in California, which is home to the countrys second-largest state guard.
In 2012, a former bonus and incentive manager for the California national guard, retired master sergeant Toni Jaffe, was jailed for 30 months for filing false claims.
In her guilty plea, the US attorneys office for the central district of California said, Jaffe admitted that she submitted claims to pay bonuses to members of the California national guard whom she knew were not eligible to receive the bonuses and to pay off officers loans, even though she knew the officers were ineligible for loan repayment.
Rather than forgive the loans, the California state government embarked on an audit of more than 17,000 soldiers who received a combined 25,000 disbursements worth about $100m.
The audit process concluded last month, with roughly 9,700 current and retired soldiers having been told to repay some or all of their bonuses. The state has recovered more than $22m so far, the LA Times reported, but collections are likely to continue for several years.
In a class action suit filed in February, one of the affected guardsmen calls the affected soldiers victims of one of the most egregious mass frauds in US military history.
The plaintiff, Bryan Strother, alleges that the payments were laid out in binding contracts and that the statute of limitations for the state has long passed.
Strother has asked for all the money collected to be paid back, and for an injunction against the state collecting any more. The case is in federal court and a ruling is expected in January.
Even state guard officials acknowledged to the Times that the attempt to collect was unfair.
At the end of the day, the soldiers ended up paying the largest price, Maj Gen Matthew Beevers, deputy commander of the California guard, told the Times. Wed be more than happy to absolve these people of their debts.
We just cant do it. Wed be breaking the law.