By Debbie Gregory.
From 2005-2010, when the U.S. military was trying to recruit and retain enough troops to fight two wars simultaneously, a number of generous bonus programs were implemented. But apparently due diligence was not done through the proper channels. This, coupled with the extreme pressure put on recruiters to meet high enlistment and reenlistment quotas resulted in thousands of servicemembers receiving bonuses that they were not entitled to.
In 2011, a whistleblower from within the California Guard exposed fraud within the California National Guard bonus program.
As a result, the Army and the National Guard Bureau directed the California National Guard to audit more than 30,000 bonus and student loan repayment records. Of the 14,000 Soldiers whose records were audited, 9,700 were found to have improperly received bonuses or student loan repayments (or both).
The Soldier Incentive and Assistance Center (SIAC) serves as an advocate for affected soldiers who received these benefits in good faith. The SAIC offers legal and administrative support that has allowed some 4,000 Soldiers to apply to the Army and have their debt forgiven.
The California National Guard, a state agency, cannot waive the debts, as that authority rests at the federal level. Defense Secretary Ash Carter ordered the Pentagon to suspend efforts to recover enlistment bonuses. The demand would have affected some 9,700 California Guard members.
Soldiers argued that it was unfair to require them to repay the money — often $15,000 or more per soldier — when their only mistake was to take financial incentives that recruiters offered. Many served multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and some were badly wounded.
“Ultimately, we will provide for a process that puts as little burden as possible on any soldier who received an improper payment through no fault of his or her own,” Carter said. “At the same time, it will respect our important obligation to the taxpayer.”