Army National Guard soldiers from California arrive at Fort Huachuca, in Sierra Vista, Ariz.., on Oct. 25, 2001.
NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Saturday, October 22, 2016, 3:50 PM
Nearly 10,000 California veterans must pay back hefty reenlistment bonuses they earned a decade ago when they signed up to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon has ordered.
Many of the California National Guard soldiers received more than $ 15,000 to reenlist in the mid-2000s, when the country was struggling to fill the force as two overseas wars raged on, the Los Angeles Times reported.
But Pentagon investigations determined the California Guard handed out bonuses too liberally, giving them to many soldiers who didn’t qualify, as state officials faced difficulties meeting enlistment quotas.
And instead of forgiving the overpaid soldier, many of whom served multiple tours of duties overseas in exchange for the funds, the California Guard has asked for the cash back.
“I feel totally betrayed,” said Susan Haley, a former Army master sergeant who was deployed to Afghanistan in 2008 after she was improperly given a $ 20,500 bonus for her six-year reenlistment. She now pays the Pentagon $ 650 a month to slowly chip away at her debt.
“They’ll get their money, but I want those years back,” she said.
The California Guard has asked about 9,700 soldiers and veterans to pay back their bonuses. Those who don’t will face interest charges, tax liens and wage deductions.
Officials admitted that the request is financially devastating for many of the veterans — but said they can’t do anything about it.
California Army National Guard soldiers at Moffett Federal Airfield, in Mountain View, Calif.
“At the end of the day, the soldiers ended up paying the largest price,” Maj. Gen. Matthew Beevers, deputy commander of the California Guard, told the newspaper. “We’d be more than happy to absolve these people of their debts. We just can’t do it. We’d be breaking the law.”
So far, the guard has recovered more than $ 22 million from overpaid soldiers.
The problem came to light in 2010, after federal officials launched an investigation into reports of improper bonus. Last month, auditors hired by the California Guard wrapped up their work reviewing the enlistment bonuses given to 14,000 soldiers in the mid-2000s.
In 2011, amid the investigation, the California Guard’s incentive manager Army Master Sgt. Toni Jaffe pleaded guilty to filing false claims for handing out more than $ 15 million in bonuses to ineligible soldiers. She is serving a 30-month prison sentence.
Many indebted soldiers and veterans have filed appeals hoping their debts will be absolved. However, during the long, guarantee-less process, interest accrues, jacking up service members’ debt even further.
Robert Richmond said he earned a $ 15,000 bonus when he reenlisted. The Army sergeant first class — who suffered permanent brain and back injuries when he was hit with a roadside bomb during a 2007 redeployment — now owes $ 19,694.62 thanks to the interest and penalties he’s incurred as he filed appeals.
“I signed a contract that I literally risked my life to fulfill,” Richmond said. “We want somebody in the government, anybody, to say this is wrong and we’ll stop going after this money.”