Why Are California Veterans Being Forced To Repay Their Enlistment Bonuses - With Interest - A Decade After Going To War?

Thousands of California veterans are being forced to repay their enlistment bonuses, years after they've returned home from war, The Los Angeles Times is reporting. Further, the Treasury Department wants the money back with interest and is threatening the soldiers with tax liens and wage garnishments if they don't repay.

At issue are thousands of improper enlistment bonuses paid out by the California National Guard, back in the early days of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, when Army recruiters were under immense pressure to meet enlistment quotas. The improper bonuses were discovered after the National Guard undertook an audit of its recruitment practices from those days. And now that the improperly paid bonuses have been discovered, the government is trying to get that money back.

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Thousands of California soldiers are being forced to repay their enlistment bonuses. [Image by Alex Wong/Getty Images]

Enlistment bonuses exceeding $15,000 or even $20,000 - intended for high-demand positions like intelligence or civil affairs - were instead given to just about any soldier who enlisted, says Col. Michael S. Piazzoni, a California Guard official in Sacramento who helped oversee the audit.

"It was a real sea change in how business was done. The system paid everybody up front, and then we spent the next five years figuring out if they were eligible."
One such soldier who received an improper enlistment bonus was Robert Richmond. Richmond had already served in Afghanistan in 2002 and 2003. But by 2007, reeling from a divorce, Richmond needed money. A recruiter told him - falsely, it would later turn out - that he was eligible for a $15,000 re-enlistment bonus. He took the check and went on to serve in Iraq, and one point taking permanent back and brain injuries from a roadside bomb.

Despite his heroic service, the government is pressuring him, almost a decade after he returned home, to repay the money they say he never should have gotten in the first place. And he is refusing to pay it back.

"I signed a contract that I literally risked my life to fulfill. We want somebody in the government, anybody, to say this is wrong and we'll stop going after this money."
Forty-seven-year-old Susan Haley similarly took a bonus the Army says she wasn't entitled to. Specifically, she took a $20,500 re-enlistment bonus in 2008 and then went on to serve in Afghanistan. Now, she says, the Treasury Department's aggressive efforts at recovering her enlistment bonus have taken a huge chunk of her income. Specifically, she's paying $650 per month - a quarter of her family's income - to pay back the money the government says she owes. She's considering selling her house to repay the money.
"They'll get their money, but I want those years back."
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Susan Haley served in Afghanistan - and now the government is making her repay her enlistment bonus. [Image by Scott Olson/Getty Images]

The problem of the improperly paid enlistment bonuses extends beyond California; soldiers in every state were found to have received improper bonuses. But the problem is most pronounced in California, which has the highest population of the 50 states and the largest National Guard.

In fact, the California National Guard would like to see the government waive the debts for improper enlistment bonuses and cease collection efforts, but Major General Matthew Beevers, deputy commander of the California Guard, says his hands are tied.

"At the end of the day, the soldiers ended up paying the largest price. 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."
Do you believe the veterans who took enlistment bonuses they weren't entitled to should have to repay them?

[Featured Image by Christopher Lyzcen/Shutterstock]