FILE - In this Nov. 30, 2011 file photo, California Army National Guard soldiers watch the arrival of the body of soldier Sean Walsh, who died on Nov. 16 during a combat operation in Afghanistan, at Moffett Federal Airfield in Mountain View, Calif. Nearly 10,000 California National Guard soldiers have been ordered to repay huge enlistment bonuses a decade after signing up to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Los Angeles Times reported Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File)
Cox Media Group National Content Desk
A decade after the Department of Defense offered bonuses to soldiers to reenlist to help fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are asking National Guard troops for that money back.
The bonuses, which averaged around $15,000, were a result of overpayments from a fraudulent scheme, federal investigators said.
Now, the Pentagon wants its money back, and is threatening the Guardsmen with interest charges, wage garnishments and tax liens if they don’t get it.
Here’s a look at what happened with the payments and what can be done now amid the outrage over the demand for repayment.
Why is the Department of Defense going after soldiers to get bonus money back?
The Department of Defense is looking for millions of dollars in bonuses that were overpaid to National Guardsmen in the early 2000s. The bonuses, along with help to pay off student loans, were offered to get guardsmen to re-enlist and to get new recruits to sign up.
What’s wrong with getting re-enlistment bonuses?
Nothing if it is done per DoD regulations. Widespread fraud and mismanagement by the California Guard led to the overpayment, according to an investigation by the DoD. California National Guard officials, under pressure to meet enlistment targets, offered the bonuses and other incentives to thousands of members, many who were not eligible under Pentagon standards. The California Guard's incentive manager pleaded guilty in 2011 to filing false claims of $15.2 million, according to the Department of Justice.
According to the Los Angeles Times, about 11,000 soldiers were included in a Department of Defense audit and about 9,700 are being asked to repay bonuses and student loan aid. According to CNN, Col. Michael Piazzoni, commander of the Soldier Incentive Assistance Center, said the numbers aren’t that big.
According to Piazzoni, 2,000 members were found to have received unauthorized bonus payments amounting to at least $22 million. A portion of an additional 5,400 soldiers who could not show proof they were eligible for the payments they received were also ordered to repay the funds.
Can’t they just forgive the debt?
The affected soldiers can petition to have the debt waived, and the military has the option to waive the debts, but only on an individual basis. It does not have the authority to issue a blanket waiver. The California National Guard asked Congress to forgive the debts in 2014. That did not happen, as many congressmen said that cost – estimated to be between $70 million and $100 million – was too high.
Some members of Congress have called for the debt to be forgiven, but no action has been taken yet.
Does the DoD offer bonuses often?
Yes, and has for years.
Re-enlistment bonuses are nothing new and are used to keep qualified people in the service. According to the New York Times, the budget for re-enlistment incentives double between 2000 and 2008 to $1.4 billion, the time these bonus were being paid. It was the time the United States was involved in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Has it happened before?
It has. Earlier this year, the Pentagon's nine-member bomb squad was in a similar situation. According to Military.com, one member of the team committed suicide. The department agreed to forgive the debt for each of the team members individually.
Update From The Associated Press: Facing a public outcry, Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Wednesday (Oct. 26, 2016) ordered the Pentagon to suspend its effort to seek repayments of enlistment bonuses given to thousands of California National Guard members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Carter's decision comes in the wake of angry reaction from congressional Republicans and Democrats who demanded he relieve the burden on Guard members following news reports that soldiers were being asked to repay debts that in some cases totaled more than $25,000. The announcement does not end the reimbursement process, but postpones collection efforts while the Pentagon and Congress look for a long-term solution.