Thousands of Californians who volunteered to serve in the United States military after September 11 are being hit with wage garnishments and tax liens as part of a massive attempt to recoup decade-old enlistment bonuses.
Revelations about the military’s attempts to claw back the bonuses have drawn outrage from veterans, advocates for servicemen and women, and politicians across the ideological spectrum. Adding to the fury is the fact that some of the veterans being targeted for repayment are highly decorated servicemen who were injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The saga began during the middle of the last decade, when the California National Guard – like National Guard units across the United States – offered large bonuses to persuade soldiers to enlist or re-enlist. Paid up front, the bonuses were necessary to entice soldiers to continue fighting in America’s all-volunteer force as the military became increasingly bogged down in both countries.
Under the law that created them, the bonuses were supposed to be paid only to soldiers performing high-demand assignments or in cases of extraordinary need. However, the California National Guard did little to ensure that the bonuses actually went to eligible servicemen and women. Instead, virtually every member of the Guard received a bonus if they enlisted or re-enlisted.
Bonus overpayments took place in every state, according to a Pentagon inquiry, but California Guard members received more bonuses and special payments than servicemen and women in virtually any other state.
A federal investigation showed that the leaders of the bonus program failed in their responsibilities and that at least some of them committed fraud. As a result of the investigation, some former officials have pled guilty to charges and received significant sentences.
In many situations, evidence of that sort of administrative failure would have led to a general forgiveness for Guard members who received excessive bonuses. Instead, however, California has chosen to go after individual servicemen and women to recover the money.
Every bonus paid has been examined by a group of 42 auditors. In cases of overpayments, former California National Guard members have been sent letters informing them that they are subject to “debt collection action.”
Those letters have reached nearly 10,000 former Guardsmen and women, with $22 million in repayment so far. It is difficult – although not impossible – for veterans to challenge the claims through an appeals process. Guardsmen who have filed appeals have apparently had mixed success in getting the amount they owe forgiven.
In the absence of a process to ensure they don’t have to make the repayments, thousands of veterans have been mailing bills to the California National Guard each month – and some have even taken out mortgages on their homes to do so.
While the California National Guard claims that they would rather not collect the money from veterans, they claim that their hands are tied by law. That assertion has led some former Guardsmen and women to argue that Congress – which voted to authorize both wars and, as they soured, the bonus program – should fix the situation.
On Capitol Hill, there is already a revolt against the clawback attempt. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Democrats would pursue a federal legislative fix as soon as the House returns from its pre-election recess. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarty (R-Calif.) has been more muted, only promising an investigation.
“These brave Californians were willing to give everything to serve our country, and they earned every penny and benefit given to them,” Pelosi said in a statement. “The overpayment of enlistment signing bonuses by the Department of Defense should not be the responsibility of our servicemembers or veterans to pay back, years after the fact.”