Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has ordered the Pentagon to stop the National Guard Bureau from aggressively collecting enlistment bonuses paid to thousands of Guardsmen in California, even as the Pentagon says the number of soldiers affected was smaller than first believed. The White House said President Obama has warned the Defense Department not to “nickel and dime” service members who were victims of fraud by overzealous recruiters.
The Los Angeles Times first reported that the Pentagon had demanded that some soldiers repay their enlistment bonuses after audits revealed overpayments by the California National Guard. Recruiters under pressure to fill ranks and hit enlistment goals at the height of the two wars improperly offered bonuses of $15,000 or more to soldiers who re-enlisted, the newspaper reported. That number is lower than a widely reported figure of nearly 10,000 soldiers who were told to pay back their bonuses. The Pentagon now says it told at most 6,500 California Guard soldiers to repay the bonuses.
Defense Department spokesman Maj. Jamie Davis said an audit more than five years in the making concluded last month that 1,100 soldiers improperly received bonuses for which they were ineligible. Another 5,400 soldiers had erroneous paperwork that could have made them ineligible. The California Guard said it has collected about $22 million from fewer than 2,000 soldiers who improperly received bonuses and student loan aid. A defense authorization bill passed by the House would establish a statute of limitations on the military’s ability to recover future overpayments and scrutinize existing cases of service member debt. House and Senate negotiators are trying to finalize the defense bill and pass it during the post-election, lame-duck session.
The California National Guard told the state’s congressional delegation two years ago that the Pentagon was trying to take back enlistment bonuses from thousands of soldiers. But Congress took no action then, said a senior National Guard official. The official added that what may have been ill-advised bonuses had been paid to National Guard members in every state. Attention was focused on California because it was “the only state that audited” bonus payments at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he added. The Pentagon acknowledged that the problem likely extends beyond California. So far no instances have surfaced in North Carolina.
Many of the veterans were enticed to enlist with bonuses topping $10,000, and later served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. “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., who says he had to refinance his home mortgage to repay $25,000 in reenlistment bonuses and $21,000 in student loan repayments that the Army says he should not have received. “People like me just got screwed.” The likelihood that hundreds of soldiers must repay large bonuses which were paid years ago when the Pentagon relied heavily on the Guard to supply troops for two wars may increase pressure on Congress to act.