This week more than 15,000 troops in the California National Guard who received enlistment bonuses and student loan payments got word from the Pentagon that they would not have to repay those bonuses—but another 1,000 are still facing repayment demands.
Last December, President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act, an annual bill that funds the military and defense budgets. In this year’s NDAA was a provision stating that the Pentagon was required to audit—on a case-by-case basis—the enlistment bonuses and student loan payments of California National Guard members, and notify them that their repayment was waived unless there had been fraud or the individual had not finished out their enlistment contract.
An investigation by the LA Times found last fall that officials in the National Guard were aggressively pursuing over 9,500 soldiers and veterans through tax liens and other tactics in an effort to force them to repay their enlistment bonuses. While a few were awarded in error, the vast majority of repayment demands were because of lost records or other mistakes the National Guard had made themselves. As the Times reports, “many of the soldiers who received [repayment] demands had served in combat, and some returned with severe injuries] that not only made repayment difficult, but required additional medical care, in some cases ongoing for the rest of their lives.
In addition, some soldiers had received money to repay their student loans—and these were also part of the repayment demand. In some cases the demands required $50,000 to be paid back to the government. Many of the soldiers whose debts were not waived are now facing debt collection and worse.
The initial LA Times report “sparked widespread public outrage,” and so news that some California National Guard troops are receiving a waiver met with positive reaction among the public—but many point to the same situation in other states, where veterans and soldiers are still being made to pay back their bonuses, since California is the only state given a waiver at this time.
The decision is only the latest in a history of scandal regarding bonuses going back to 2010. The California National Guard was found to have “misspent” about $100 million dollars; the person solely responsible for approving those bonuses and incentives, former Master Sergeant Toni Jaffe, pled guilty to approving over $15 million in knowingly false claims. While Jaffe claims that she was pressured to approve the bonuses to keep enlistment numbers up, she was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison.
Between 2000 and 2008, the Defense Department spent $1.4 billion on enlistment bonuses in an effort to keep troops numbers high enough for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For those soldiers still required to pay back bonuses and incentives given to them, the financial weight of the debt can be crushing. Some have refinanced their homes, or set up payment plans as high as $650 per month. Soldiers and veterans who default on the repayment will be barred from educational financial aid, and will see their credit scores taking a hit, affecting their ability to purchase a home, rent an apartment, or get an education.
The overall scandal could also affect enlistment numbers, as prospective enlistees may see the possibility of having to pay back their incentives someday as a reason to stay out entirely. For those who are getting their debt waived, however, it’s one less thing they’ll have to deal with after their military service.