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National Guard Seeks Federal Aid For Soldiers Told To Return Bonuses

In this Nov. 30, 2011 file photo, California Army National Guard soldiers watch the arrival of the body of soldier Sean Walsh, who died on Nov. 16 during a combat operation in Afghanistan, at Moffett Federal Airfield in Mountain View, Calif.
Associated Press
In this Nov. 30, 2011 file photo, California Army National Guard soldiers watch the arrival of the body of soldier Sean Walsh, who died on Nov. 16 during a combat operation in Afghanistan, at Moffett Federal Airfield in Mountain View, Calif.

National Guard Seeks Federal Aid For Soldiers Told To Return Bonuses
National Guard Seeks Federal Aid For Soldiers Told To Return Bonuses GUEST:Steve Walsh, reporter, KPBS News

Had you repaint a $20,000 citing but as the National Guard gave you for serving in Iraq? For most California National Guard veterans the answer is very slowly. With a deep sense of having been betrayed the government says nearly 10,000 National Guard veterans have been asked to pay back signing bonuses. The Pentagon says they were made an error. Joining me is Steve Walsh. This is a terrible story. We contacted the California National Guard but they could make no one available for comment. We know that you know the operations behind this so we asked you to be with us. When were these bonuses issued to National Guard soldiers and how much were they? This happened back in 2006 and 2007. Just a background I was in Iraq a couple of times embedded with the Indiana National Guard so I know where these guys are coming from . This is the worst parts of the war. 2007 this is still a time when about half of the soldier serving in Afghanistan and Iraq are national guardsmen. The National Guard is -- they turnover almost completely during the two wars. The entire force which is out. They were losing a lot of people and losing a lot of people even to private contractors. I remember being there and talking with guardsmen driving around in trucks and they are talking the contractors and they are making something like $80,000 to do the very same job. So the National Guard was bleeding personnel in several different ways. So it was around this time where apparently many of the soldiers in California were called into these mass recruiting seminars and they said we have these large bonuses if you want to come back for another six years. That's when many of him decided we will stick with him. You have to understand that the guard at one point -- I remember when I was in Iraq in 2005 and you had Vietnam vets that were still in their. You had ¬50 out for still there. So they are really helping it to try to re-up the people that they have been recruit new people because many of them are are behind. Savior was in 2006 and 2007 they said they were offered these six-year bonuses and it turns out that many of them did not qualify. They see that now. How did that get mixed up because obviously when they were given the bonuses they thought they qualified. So there was a actual court case back in 2010 where an Army master Sergeant was actually convicted. He pled guilty in 2011 for filing false claims for something like $15.2 million worth of fraudulent benefits and then sentenced to 30 months in prison. At that point, from the stories it appears as if they were offering these bonuses on a wide scale and that they were coming back later to figure out whether or not they actually did qualify. This is the government's mistake. Why are Iraq and Afghanistan veterans from the National Guard are they being asked to pay the bonuses back? There -- why is this coming all the way down to the vets? That is what people are asking? The California National Guard has said that they would forgive these tests if they could. So you have to understand with the National Guard even though they have this tool roll that the state and national most of their funding comes from the federal government so this is incentives were federal money. It is up to the federal government to make this decision. There is a process that you can go through that individuals can go through to work this out. It appears to be a very long and arduous process. You might have to get an attorney. Some people according to Los Angeles times have been fighting this for years and some of given up and said $25,000 is a real hardship but I can't fight this anymore so they started repaying it. You made the point that they been fighting this for years. First request for repayment letters were now about two years or longer ago WISE this story getting so much attention right now? That is where those questions. Why is it now? Went out to say we credit the Los Angeles times. They put together this and one story and many have left the National Guard and living in other parts of the country. They tracked him down and put the story one place and you saw a wave -- Susan Davis issued a statement saying the forever government needs to take action and now their talk of bills in Congress to try to remedy this and try to forget this money. Many of these people bring up into the guard but then did feature -- more combat. So these are multiple combat vets. California National Guard itself says it cannot just waive these payments. Do we know if they are actually doing anything to try to get the government and the people that can waive these payments to do anything? They set up a process -- is also a system that is set up in each county in California can help people work on their benefits and give new benefits or challenge some of these that have,. There are couple of different people have there who can help them. Ultimately it sounds like this might be up to Congress. If they want to forgive this money to this all-in-one time it's going to be up to Congress. Many lawmakers had made statements have there been any movement. There is one bill to make that happen. It is an election year and this will be a lame duck Congress at this point. The wheels do not turn quickly but we have seen in other cases that sometimes there can be roll movement and they can move rather quickly when they want to. I've been speaking with Steve Walsh. Thank you very much.

National Guard Seeks Federal Aid For Soldiers Told To Return Bonuses
Members of Congress and veterans leaders on Monday called for federal action to absolve the debts of nearly 10,000 soldiers in California alone who have been ordered by the Pentagon to repay enlistment bonuses a decade after they signed up to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan

Members of Congress and veterans leaders on Monday called for federal action to absolve the debts of nearly 10,000 soldiers in California alone who have been ordered by the Pentagon to repay enlistment bonuses a decade after they signed up to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Lawmakers from California expressed outrage, including Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer; House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican; and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat.

Maj. Gen. Matthew Beevers said the California National Guard is working with members of Congress to introduce legislation that, if approved and signed by the president, would order the National Guard Bureau to clear the debts of soldiers who were wrongly told they were eligible for bonuses of $15,000 or more.

The total amount given out in bonuses is not clear, but The Los Angeles Times reported $22 million has been recovered in California so far.

"This is how you destroy all faith in a Pentagon that is supposed to have your back," Brian Duffy, head of the national service organization Veterans of Foreign Wars, said in an emailed statement. "Instead of seeking repayment, the Pentagon owes them a debt of thanks and an apology for insulting their honorable service to our nation."

The Guard offered the bonuses and student loan aid to re-enlist at the height of the two wars in the 2000s.

The Pentagon demanded the money back after audits revealed overpayments by the California Guard under pressure to fill ranks and hit enlistment goals. If soldiers refuse, they could face interest charges, wage garnishments and tax liens, the Times reported .

"We understand other states may have been affected but are pending verification of which ones," National Guard Bureau spokeswoman Laura Ochoa wrote in an email to The Associated Press. "California is where the majority of this occurred."

Soldiers told the newspaper that they feel betrayed by having to repay the money. They can apply for a federal review of their debt, but that appeals process does not guarantee it will be waived.

"Our military heroes should not shoulder the burden of military recruiters' faults from over a decade ago," McCarthy said in an emailed statement.

His statement said the House would investigate the reports, but spokesman Matt Sparks declined to comment on what that would entail.

In California, four people were convicted of fraud over the improper bonuses.

At least 54 members of Congress and the California Legislature sent letters to Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter asking that he halt the collections and provide further information.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton also said she was appalled by what she described as a mistreatment of veterans and called for legislation.

Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Defense Department spokesman, encouraged service members to appeal the debt and said the department would work with the Army, National Guard Bureau and California Army National Guard to "strengthen efforts to respond to this situation."

"We take doing right by our service members very seriously, and the senior leadership of this department is looking very closely at this matter," Davis said.

A federal investigation in 2010 found thousands of bonuses and student loan payments were improperly doled out to California Guard soldiers. About 9,700 current and retired soldiers received notices to repay some or all of their bonuses with more than $22 million recovered so far, the Times reported.

The California Guard's former Bonus and Incentive Manager, Army Master Sgt. Toni Jaffe, pleaded guilty to fraud for misappropriating the funds and was sentenced to 30 months in prison in 2012. Jaffe gave out $15.2 million in bonuses and loan repayments that she knew soldiers were ineligible to receive, federal prosecutors said at the time.

Three additional officers pleaded guilty to the fraud.

Beevers said the California Guard also fired one general and two colonels. The Guard punished more than 100 other soldiers following the incident; most of them are no longer in the service.

"Folks who are in leadership now are the ones who have spent several years correcting that issue," spokesman Capt. William Martin said.

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