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.
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.
“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 refinanced 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.”
In Iraq, Van Meter was thrown from an armored vehicle turret — and later awarded a Purple Heart for his combat injuries — after the vehicle detonated a buried roadside bomb.
Susan Haley, a Los Angeles native and former Army master sergeant who deployed to Afghanistan in 2008, said she sends the Pentagon $650 a month — a quarter of her family’s income — to pay down $20,500 in bonuses that the Guard says were given to her improperly.
“I feel totally betrayed,” said Haley, 47, who served 26 years in the Army along with her husband and oldest son, a medic who lost a leg in combat in Afghanistan.
Haley, who now lives in Kempner, Texas, worries they may have to sell their house to repay the bonuses. “They’ll get their money, but I want those years back,” she said, referring to her six-year reenlistment.
The problem offers a dark perspective on the Pentagon’s use of hefty cash incentives to fill its all-volunteer force during the longest era of warfare in the nation’s history.
Even Guard officials concede that taking back the money from military veterans is distasteful.
“At the end of the day, the soldiers ended up paying the largest price,” said Maj. Gen. Matthew Beevers, deputy commander of the California Guard. “We’d be more than happy to absolve these people of their debts. We just can’t do it. We’d be breaking the law.”
Facing enlistment shortfalls and two major wars with no end in sight, the Pentagon began offering the most generous incentives in its history to retain soldiers in the mid-2000s.
It also began paying the money up front, like the signing bonuses that some businesses pay in the civilian sector.