No one joins the military with dreams of becoming wealthy; many are lucky to raise a family on what they earn defending our freedom. Lucky few sometimes find themselves in a position that allows them to take advantage of rare retention or reenlistment bonuses to tuck away a little extra. But what would you do if years later, even a decade later, the Pentagon sent you a notice claiming you owed them $10,000, $15,000 or more because it determined that bonuses were paid in error?
That is exactly what is happening across California. What appears to have started with an investigation into fraudulent activity by those charged with overseeing the incentive program has now resulted in Guard officials attempting to recoup over $22 million in payments of both bonuses and student loans. Yes, there was fraud involved – a Master Sergeant who oversaw the program plead guilty to fraudulently submitting payments of over $15 million and three other officials have been placed on probation after paying restitution for smaller amounts. But there is no proof the members who received the disputed funds participated in the fraud or had any reason to believe the payments were even questionable, yet 9,700 are being treated as if they are responsible for the misgivings of a poorly managed program fraught with lies, poor record keeping, and misrepresented promises.
There was a time when bonuses you were not entitled to were nearly impossible to receive – especially in the amounts seen in this case. First, bonuses were generally limited to those select members who possessed unique skills, clearances or experience that would be difficult or time-consuming to replace. Second, bonuses were usually paid in increments when the member reached specific milestones in training or service time. This meant that bonuses and the qualification for obtaining them were clearly written and available to everyone involved, plus each agreement was scrutinized as if it were a boot’s initial enlistment.
But, during the height of a two front war, National Guard units saw members leaving in higher than normal numbers while at the same time experiencing lower than average recruitment. Pentagon officials relaxed the requirements and began paying bonuses to a wider range of specialties, in far higher values than before and even upfront. These changes, coupled with lax oversight and fraud by retention officials, resulted in payment to those who were not qualified.
In some cases, the payees had too much time in service to receive retention bonuses. Others involved members who were eligible because of holding a particular MOS who later left that MOS and transitioned to one which would not have qualified. Finally, there are a large number of recipients who may have qualified but have now been deemed to have received fraudulent bonuses because the reenlistment paperwork had been completed improperly.
Former Captain Christopher Van Meter and Master Sgt. Susan Huley each received retention bonuses and later deployed to Iraq. On its face, it would appear they earned much more than they may have gained financially. But suitors determined both were ineligible due to having already served more than the maximum amount of time in service. Both have since left service and decided to repay the disputed amounts rather than face interest, liens, and wage garnishment – Van Meter refinanced his home to repay a $25,000 bonus and $21,000 in student loans while Huley is paying off her $20,500 bonus at $650 per month.
Retired Major Robert D’Andrea decided to appeal when notified he would need to repay a $20,000 bonus received in 2008 after auditors claimed they could not find copies of his agreement. Considering D’Andrea is now a financial crimes investigator it probably sounded like a good idea, but the decks are stacked against the member, and it is tough to beat a system which rarely gives the member the benefit of the doubt. D’Andrea, in an interview with the LA Times, claims he has exhausted almost all appeals and has yet to have a single day in court.
Retired 1st Sgt Brian Strother was also unwilling to simply fork over money and filed a suit in Federal court after being informed he needed to repay over $25,000 in bonuses and student loans. The government claims he voided the contract by changing MOS after receiving the bonus; he claims he served the required number of years and only changed MOS after receiving DOD approval – never being told it might endanger the bonus. Although he recently received a notice from DOD officials “forgiving” $15,000 because they determined he had “acted in good faith,” they still expect him to repay the $10,000 in related student loans.
Only a true bureaucrat could admit that the wrongdoing was committed by a third party, with no evidence the service member had any awareness and was defrauded themselves, and still insist the victim is responsible for repaying the debt. Every story about a veteran returning from the war being cheated, scammed or mistreated is a travesty – it’s criminal when the government is responsible for such actions against those same citizens who risked their lives to protect our nation and freedom. If Congress does not step in, reverse the demand for repayment, return already collected monies and make the changes necessary to prevent this from ever happening again, then almost every pro-veteran stance they have taken before is for naught.
If you are a veteran who received a notice of repayment, I urge you to contact the California National Guard as soon as possible. Although the California Guard cannot forgive your debt, or intercede on your behalf, they can assist you in contacting the National Guard Bureau or request military records necessary to prove eligibility. If you are disgusted by yet another example of veterans losing their homes, wondering how they will feed their children and seeing their life savings wiped away while far too many less deserving individuals live off the tax payer’s dime, I encourage you to sign the online White House petition.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.