Thousands of California National Guardsmen Forced to Repay Reenlistment Bonuses

by Mark Antonio Wright

Thousands of California National Guard veterans are being forced to repay decade-old reenlistment bonuses — to the tune of, in many cases, tens of thousands of dollars. It’s a story that reeks of governmental incompetence, short-sightedness, and the inability to see the forest for the trees. The Los Angeles Times reports

Nearly 10,000 soldiers, many of whom served multiple combat tours, have been ordered to repay large enlistment bonuses — and slapped with interest charges, wage garnishments and tax liens if they refuse — after audits revealed widespread overpayments by the California Guard at the height of the wars last decade.

Investigations have determined that lack of oversight allowed for widespread fraud and mismanagement by California Guard officials under pressure to meet enlistment targets.

But soldiers say the military is reneging on 10-year-old agreements and imposing severe financial hardship on veterans whose only mistake was to accept bonuses offered when the Pentagon needed to fill the ranks.

The reenlistment bonuses were aimed at keeping certain types of soldiers in the Guard — such as intelligence personnel or noncommissioned officers “badly needed in units due to deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan.”

But, in an effort by the Guard to drive up reenlistment numbers, many guardsmen were awarded bonuses that they did not technically qualify for.

A 2010 federal investigation discovered that “thousands of bonuses and student loan payments were given to California Guard soldiers who did not qualify for them, or were approved despite paperwork errors.” In 2011, the California Guard’s incentive manager, Master Sergeant Toni Jaffe, pleaded guilty to filing false claims worth $15.2 million and was sentenced to two and a half years in federal prison. Three Guard officers pleaded guilty to fraud charges and were placed on probation.

According to the LA Times, the California Guard says it cannot simply forgive the improperly awarded bonuses — “We just can’t do it. We’d be breaking the law,” the California Guard’s deputy commander told the paper — but officials say they are helping veterans file appeals with the National Guard Bureau and the Army Board for Correction of Military Records.

If this sounds to you like an epic government screw up — you’d be right. First the Guard pressured guardsmen to reenlist, dangling tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of bonuses as incentive, then it improperly awarded the money. Now, a decade on, it wants the money back. The same money-no-object government that tolerates $140 billion in improper Medicaid payments has decided that they’ll wring money from combat veterans who, acting in good faith, signed reenlistment contracts.

As a result, many guardsmen of been forced into collection; some have had their wages garnished.

“The system paid everybody up front, and then we spent the next five years figuring out if they were eligible,” Colonel Michael S. Piazzoni, the California Guard official who oversaw the audits, told the LA Times.

Good enough for government work — bad news for all the veterans left hanging.

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