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Soldiers Struggling to Repay Enlistment Bonuses Issued in Error

Capt. Christopher Van Meter in Iraq. Now a teacher in Modesto, Calif., he is repaying $46,000.

After 21 years in the military, three deployments, and a roadside bomb blast that left him bleeding and unconscious, Christopher Van Meter got a letter from the Pentagon saying he improperly received enlistment bonuses and now owed the government $46,000.

“I was having to choose between buying diapers and food for my children and paying this debt,” said Mr. Van Meter, 42, a former Army captain who now teaches high school near Modesto, Calif. “I spent years of my life deployed, missed out on birthdays and deaths in the family, got blown up. It’s hard to hear after that that they say I haven’t fulfilled my contract.”

Mr. Van Meter is one of nearly 10,000 National Guard troops in California who have been ordered to repay re-enlistment bonuses and other incentives doled out during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan after an audit in 2011 uncovered widespread fraud, mismanagement and overpayment by the Guard in the state.

Some of the troops have been trying unsuccessfully for years to get out from under the debt and many are struggling to repay it. The Los Angeles Times, which first reported on the impact on troops, found years of appeals had not brought relief. Requests for help from Congress by the Guard’s command went unanswered. Mr. Van Meter had to roll the debt into his mortgage to make ends meet. Others have ruined credit and face stiff penalties for missing payments.

“I don’t think I’ll be able to make it this month, we just don’t have the money,” said Susan Haley, a former National Guard intelligence specialist who must repay $20,500 at $650 a month. “They wrecked my reputation, garnished my wages, and I’ve been unable to do anything about it.”

Members of Congress, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California, are now calling for a legislative fix. Others are also proposing an inquiry into whether problems recouping bonuses in the Guard stretch beyond California. They are also calling for the Pentagon to immediately cease collection on the bonuses.

“It’s clear to me the vast majority of these guardsman acted in good faith,” said Representative Mark Takano, Democrat of California. “We need to take immediate action on this.”

The military has long paid re-enlistment bonuses and given other incentives, like repayment of college loans, to keep highly trained and desirable personnel in the service. The practice accelerated during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The budget for re-enlistment incentives nearly doubled between 2000 and 2008 to $1.4 billion according to the RAND Corporation.

During that time, the California Guard held seminars where troops filed through an assembly line-style re-enlistment process. The re-enlistments was overseen by a master sergeant named Toni L. Jaffe of Citrus Heights, Calif., who lavished troops with bonuses and forgiveness of student loans. A federal inquiry in 2010 estimated that as much as $100 million in improper bonuses might have been paid. The Guard says that total is closer to $70 million. Ms. Jaffe, who has since left the military, pleaded guilty in 2012 to approving more than $15 million in fraudulent claims.

The case sparked a detailed review of the re-enlistment program, with dozens of auditors combing through the 35,000 records.

“We did uncover about 100 people that were involved in outright fraud,” said Maj. Gen. Matthew P. Beevers, the deputy adjutant general of the California National Guard. “The challenge now is that the vast majority of the soldiers involved got improper bonuses because they relied, to their detriment, on people they thought knew what they were doing.”

“If I had a magic wand and could fix all this for the soldiers who thought they were being told the truth, I would do it, but I can’t do that,” General Beevers said. “It relies on action from Congress and the secretary of the Army.”

The California National Guard asked Congress to pass a bill erasing the debts in 2014, he said, but lawmakers balked at the cost. On Monday, General Beevers said several lawmakers had called and pledged their support for such a bill. “I’m more optimistic now than I have been since this started four and a half years ago.”

Pentagon officials declined to comment on Monday afternoon.

Many soldiers caught in the bonus debacle said they were unaware they would have to reimburse the Guard until years later, when they received collection letters.

Mr. Van Meter said that he had given $23,000 in college tuition bills to the National Guard and that it had paid them. Auditors later said the Guard was only authorized to pay $10,000.

In another instance, Mr. Van Meter was given a $10,000 re-enlistment bonus because his career field — biomedical repair — was facing a shortage of workers. Auditors later decided that he had not fulfilled his contract because a short time later, the National Guard deployed him to Kosovo as a supply manager.

“It’s not like you get a choice in the military,” Mr. Van Meter said. “They tell you what to do, and you do it, or you are thrown in jail.”

During a third enlistment, auditors found, Mr. Van Meter did not fulfill his contract because he became an officer before his enlistment was complete.

“I wasn’t shirking duty, I was stepping up to lead, but to them, it was a violation,” he said.

Many veterans have tried to appeal the debts with little luck.

Bryan Strother, a sergeant first class, filed a class-action lawsuit in February in Federal District Court in Sacramento that argued that members of the Guard should not have to repay their bonuses.

Since filing the case, his lawyer, Daniel C. Willman, has been inundated with calls from members of the Guard in other states, Mr. Willman said.

“It’s a national problem,” he said. “These soldiers operated in good faith. They served their country. And now it is coming back on their backs.”

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