Vets, soldiers asked to return signing bonuses

1024-california-national-guardSacramento, Calif. (CNN) — American veterans who once put their lives on the line fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan are now locked in a struggle with their own government.

Thousands are being asked to pay back bonuses they received when they re-enlisted in the National Guard.

The government says in many cases the bonuses should never have been awarded to begin with.

In 2006 the military desperately needed soldiers to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan but it was missing its recruitment goals for new enlistees, so the defense department started paying incentive bonuses to keep the soldiers it already had.

Re-enlist and you get not just money, but loan forgiveness, other benefits. It was a good deal, thousands re-enlisted. And now nearly 10,000 of them are being told that good deal was a crime.

A Federal investigation found enlistment officers committing fraud. In California, the FBI went after Master Sergeant Toni Jaffe, who pleaded guilty to submitting false and fictitious claims on behalf of her fellow California National Guard members.

Her efforts alone added up to $15.2 million in illegal payouts and loan repayments to California National Guardsmen.

Jaffe has gone to prison, but inexplicably, the Department of Defense has gone after the soldiers to pay back their bonuses

Chris Van Meter served his country an extra 6 years, and was forced to pay back $46,000. He said, “You think it’s a joke. And obviously it was not a joke. And — and it’s gut wrenching. Because you have to figure out what you’re going to do and how you’re going to survive. I had a young family at the time.”

The California National Guard shares the frustration — but says it does not have the authority to waive the debts.

California Congressman Adam Schiff today told CNN he has already written to the head of the California National Guard asking that any attempts to re-claim soldiers’ bonus money be stopped until he and Congress can work out a solution. He said, “I think it is outrageous that the National Guard soldiers are being asked to repay bonuses that they have every right to expect.”

Defense Department spokesman Captain Jeff Davis says affected soldiers can petition to have the debts waived.

One soldier tells CNN that he has petitioned several times, but couldn’t get a break.


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