The Pentagon is forcing nearly 10,000 soldiers who were paid juicy cash bonuses to reenlist into the California National Guard to pay the bonuses back, after an audit found they were given out by mistake.
The Los Angeles Times spoke with a number of soldiers affected by the error — which was made by Guard officials, not the soldiers themselves — who are struggling to repay debts of $15,000 or more and have little recourse, since protesting or failing to pay will result in interest and penalty charges, along with calls from debt collectors.
"These bonuses were used to keep people in," former Capt. Christopher Van Meter, who says he refinanced his home mortgage to repay $25,000 in reenlistment bonuses and $21,000 in student loan repayments, told The Times. "People like me just got screwed."
It seems that until the Times story broke, soldiers were repaying these debts under the radar. If they wanted to appeal, they were forced into a Kafkaesque bureaucracy involving the Treasury Department, California National Guard, the National Guard Bureau, and the DoD.
That still is the case, at least for now.
"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 Guard wrote on its Facebook page Sunday, amid a wave of criticism. "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."
The National Guard Bureau declined to comment, but Pentagon spokesperson Maj. Jamie Davis said the military was looking "very closely" at the issue.
"There is a formal review process in place through which affected service members can be relieved of responsibility to repay improperly awarded bonuses," he said in a statement. "We continue to encourage service members affected by this situation to pursue those reviews and any relief they may be entitled to receive. In the meantime, the Department will work with the Army, the National Guard Bureau, the California Army National Guard and other relevant authorities to resolve these issues."
On Monday, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) wrote a letter to the Adjutant General of California's Guard, urging the suspension of debt collection as Congress works on "corrective legislation."
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