California Guard Veterans Told to Repay Enlistment Bonuses

Close to a decade ago the Pentagon used a classic maneuver to entice soldiers to reenlist: hefty bonuses. Now, officials are demanding that thousands of those vets pay the money back. One California veteran affected by the situation is Christopher Van Meter. He was awarded the Purple Heart after being thrown from an armored vehicle during a deployment to Iraq. When the moment came for him to retire back in 2007 after serving for 15 years in the Army, he was encouraged to reenlist. According to Van Meter, he was encouraged with a reenlistment bonus of about $15,000. About a decade later, officials realized that Van Mater and many others like him were not technically eligible to receive the bonuses they were given to reenlist.

Bonus Eligibility: In recent news, bonus eligibility has been discussed – particularly the fact that only soldiers holding certain assignments (i.e. intelligence, noncommissioned officer posts, civil affairs, etc.) were eligible for the bonuses. Investigation into the situation uncovered both fraud and mismanagement by California Guard officials who were desperately offering the bonuses in order to meet their enlistment target numbers.

In 2011, the California Guard incentive manager, retired Master Sgt. Toni Jaffe, pleaded guilty to filing false claims of $15.2 million. During the course of her admission, she stated that from Fall 2007 through Fall 2009, she routinely submitted fictitious claims on behalf of California National Guard members to pay bonuses to members she knew were not eligible, and to pay off officer’s loans she knew were ineligible for loan repayment. She was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison. Three other officers involved pleaded guilty, were required to pay restitution and put on probation. As a result, thousands of soldiers are now being asked to pay a hefty price for the fraudulent/fictional claims. Millions in enlistment bonuses are basically being recalled.

Van Meter, mentioned above, was shocked to receive a letter stating he owed $46,000: a combination of $15,000 enlistment bonus, a student loan repayment amount and an officer bonus…plus a processing fee. After his retirement in 2013, he had three years to pay back the debt. That meant monthly payments of more than $1,300 –leaving Van Meter struggling to provide the basics for his family. They were eventually forced to refinance their mortgage in order to pay off the staggering debt that they didn’t even know they had accumulated. The Van Meter family is one of many in similar situations. Some claim that approximately 9,700 current and retired soldiers have been told to repay some or all of the bonuses they received years ago, but the military auditor handling the process, Col. Michael Piazzoni, stated that the number was lower.

According to Piazzoni, 11,000 soldiers were included in the audit. 1,100 were discovered as receiving unauthorized distributions that need to be repaid. 5,400 soldiers were discovered to have missing paperwork or proper documentation of eligibility and have to pay back the money they received. Approximately 4,000 soldiers were found to be eligible for the payments as they were distributed. The process is not yet complete, but auditors have already confirmed 2,300 instances of unauthorized bonus payments to about 2,000 soldiers. The total comes to $22 million in unauthorized bonuses. That number includes 1,100 soldiers who received unauthorized money and the soldiers from the 5,400 who were unable to show proof of eligibility. The remaining recipients will need to produce the proper documentation proving their eligibility for the funds or they could be held liable to repay the amounts back to the Defense Department.

The audit and recoupment is being handled through a federal program jointly administered by the National Guard Bureau and the Department of the Army. The California National Guard has stated that it does not have the authority to waive the debts and that their hands are tied in this situation. As of now, there is no law passed by Congress to waive the debts so they stand, leaving the California National Guard in a difficult position as there isn’t much they can do to advocate for their soldiers. Affected soldiers are able to petition to have a debt waived. The military does hole the authority to waive an individual repayment, but only on a one-by-one basis. There is no authority held by the military to issue a blanket waiver to cover all soldiers affected by this situation.

Soldiers are being encouraged to take advantage of the appeals process while the Pentagon, the Army, the National Guard Bureau, the California Army National Guard and other relevant authorities and institutions work together to work towards a resolution. Soldiers affected who have petitioned for debt forgiveness have been denied, Van Mater multiple times. Van Meter is just one California vet who accepted an incentive payment in good faith. Many of them paid a heavy price for their military service; many even experienced severe injuries after reenlisting. And now, years later they are offered processing fees, interest charges, wage garnishment, tax liens and fines. It’s possible that Congress will take action to resolve the issue when members return from election recess.

If you have questions or concerns regarding enlistment bonuses, or proving your eligibility for bonuses please get in touch with one of the experienced southern California employment law attorneys at Blumenthal, Nordrehaug & Bhowmik