Thousands of California National Guard veterans are getting bills demanding that they repay illegal enlistment bonuses they received during the height of the Iraq War, but they’re not responding to letters offering them a break.
The California National Guard’s commander, Maj. Gen. David Baldwin, acknowledged Friday in a letter to troops that his office can’t find some 4,000 veterans who accepted questionable re-enlistment bonuses.
They may be eligible for a program that will waive the debt they incurred by accepting re-enlistment bonuses from an office that handed out tens of millions of dollars worth of illegal benefits between 2006 and 2010.
Baldwin’s letter followed an announcement from Defense Secretary Ash Carter last week ordering the Pentagon to halt its efforts to compel California troops to repay unwarranted bonuses. He’s giving the Defense Department until July 1 to reassess a debt-collection program that’s targeting nearly 10,000 California soldiers.
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Carter’s program essentially would speed up the reviews that the California National Guard has been offering since 2012, when its auditors began identifying troops who knowingly or unwittingly gained from fraud and abuse in its retention office. Hundreds of them have had their debts forgiven, Baldwin wrote.
“Unfortunately, more than 4,000 soldiers with errors in their incentive packets have not had the same opportunity because the Cal Guard’s (debt review office) has been unable to contact them,” Baldwin wrote.
The California National Guard does not collect the money, although its auditors handed information about which soldiers accepted questionable bonuses to other federal agencies. Some soldiers have received letters demanding bonus repayment from the Treasury Department, as well as from the military’s payroll operator, the Defense Finance and Accounting Service.
Soldiers who have appealed their bills have said they cannot get through the Defense Finance and Accounting Service to challenge their debts.
One of them is Mark Hodge of Auburn, who told Capital Public Radio on Monday that he has paid $27,000 to settle a debt he incurred when he accepted a $20,000 enlistment bonus in 2008. He was targeted for bonus collection because his assignment in the Army changed soon after he joined.
“My lawyer couldn’t do anything; I couldn’t do anything,” he said, when he called the finance agency.
Troy Torres of Galt also has unsuccessfully challenged the Defense Department’s demand that he repay $20,000 in education benefits he received. He spoke to The Sacramento Bee in 2013 when the Army first began compelling troops to repay questionable bonuses.
Torres is skeptical that Carter’s announcement will lead to a better outcome for him and his family.
“I am still heavily in debt,” he said Monday.
A Bee investigation in 2010 revealed abuse in the California National Guard’s incentive program. Master Sgt. Toni Jaffe, a former incentive program manager, later received a 30-month prison sentence for fraud. Several officers also received short prison sentences, and about 100 others were disciplined under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.