LOS ANGELES — Thousands of soldiers who served in the National Guard after Sept. 11 are being told they need to pay back their enlistment bonuses — plus interest.
This comes after audits uncovered “widespread overpayments” and “fraud and mismanagement by California Guard officials under pressure to meet enlistment targets” in the mid-2000s, the Los Angeles Times reported Saturday.
“Many of the veterans were enticed to enlist by bonuses topping $10,000, and later served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the Military Times reported.
Bonus overpayments happened in every state, but “the money was handed out far more liberally in the California Guard.”
However, instead of forgiving the improper bonuses, the California Guard assigned dozens of auditors to track down the soldiers who were overpaid.
According to the Times, approximately 9,700 current and retired soldiers have been told by the California Guard to repay some or all of their bonuses.
The Sacramento Bee first reported the bonus scandal in 2010, after a whistleblower claimed as much as $100 million had gone to soldiers who didn’t qualify for the incentives.
“The program’s one-time leader, former Master Sgt. Toni Jaffe, was later sentenced to 30 months in prison, after pleading guilty to making $15 million in false claims,” the Bee reported.
But that did nothing for the soldiers.
“At the end of the day, the soldiers ended up paying the largest price,” the Times quoted Maj. Gen. Matthew Beevers, deputy commander of the California Guard, as saying.
After the Times reported the situation, the state military service issued a statement.
“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,” it said.
Several other California lawmakers and congressional leaders have spoken out against the decision.
“Our military heroes should not shoulder the burden of military recruiters’ faults from over a decade ago. They should not owe for what was promised during a difficult time in our country.” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.
One soldier has started a Change.org petition called “Stop Army from stealing back signing bonuses 10 years later, after vets completed contracts.”
“I have a legally binding contract promising me the money in return for 6 years of service and I did my part. They can’t give me my time back. Time I could have used in a better paying career. They can’t erase the things I have done or seen, or erase my injuries. How can they just take the money back without a judgment and without my permission?” creator Robert Richmon wrote. “This should scare every American.”
As of Monday afternoon, more than 43,000 people have signed the petition.