Pentagon Orders Soldiers to Return Enlistment Bonuses

Nearly 10,000 guardsmen forced to give back incentives paid for their reenlistment

A decade after the California National Guard offered bonuses starting at $15,000 to soldiers who chose to reenlist and serve on combat tours, the Pentagon is now demanding these soldiers repay the money or face legal consequences, according to a report from the Los Angeles Times.

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The California Guard’s use of monetary incentives in the mid-2000’s to boost the declining enlistment rosters while facing two wars enticed nearly 10,000 soldiers to reenlist. But years after the agreements were made, investigators deemed that California Guard officials mismanaged the agreements and allowed for widespread fraud. As a bitter thanks for their service, thousands of soldiers must now repay those bonuses.

“Shame on the callous Pentagon decision makers who simply dictate pay back, while not thinking through the effect it will have on service personal and the fallout of bad publicity in the communities in which they live.”

“At the end of the day, the soldiers ended up paying the largest price,” Maj. Gen. Matthew Beevers, deputy commander of the California Guard, told the LA Times. “We’d be more than happy to absolve these people of their debts. We just can’t do it. We’d be breaking the law.”

According to Col. Michael S. Piazzoni, a California Guard official who supervised the audits, the Guard paid much of the money upfront while the system spent the next several years analyzing whether or not the agreements were even above board. The soldiers with whom the Guard made the agreements primarily were deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.

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When the National Guard Bureau investigated the bonus payments across the country, the Pentagon agency found that bonus overpayments took place in every state. But California engaged in the highest levels of overpayments and incentives dangled in front of the soldiers to entice them to reenlist.

The unpleasant discovery of the error was made 10 years later and the Pentagon ordered approximately 9,700 of the soldiers to repay the bonuses. So far, $22 million has been returned. But the repayment initiatives have left these soldiers feeling bitter and betrayed while many began filing appeals or refusing to comply with the Pentagon’s orders.

Robert Richmond told the LA Times he reenlisted as a special forces soldier when he learned that he ostensibly qualified for a $15,000 bonus. After being deployed to Iraq in 2007, Richmond served in the town of Hillah, which was part of an area known as the “Triangle of Death.” Richmond was left with permanent brain and back injuries after a roadside bomb exploded near him.

When Richmond learned that the Pentagon had slapped him in the face with an order to repay his bonus or face “debt collection action,” he could not believe it.

“I signed a contract that I literally risked my life to fulfill,” Richmond told the LA Times. “We want somebody in the government, anybody, to say this is wrong and we’ll stop going after this money.”

After refusing to pay the bonuses and filing several appeals, the Treasury Department informed Richmond that his “unpaid delinquent debt” rose to $19,694.62.

One retired colonel slammed the deep injustice handed to the California guardsmen.

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“This is not the way to treat soldiers. I can fully understand how soldiers in the article felt ‘betrayed, screwed, frustrated, and overwhelmed,'” retired Col. James A. Lake told LifeZette. “Shame on the callous Pentagon decision makers who simply dictate pay back while not thinking through the effect it will have on service personal and the fallout of bad publicity in the communities in which they live.”

Lake, who served 26 years in the United States Army, served as a battalion commander for active and reserve recruiting during the 1980s. Noting that it was “very common” for recruiters to offer incentives to entice men and women with highly sought-after occupational skills to enlist, Lake said the incentive program was “necessary” for recruitment efforts.

“The article appears to outline clearly that there was fraud and bad management at the National Guard level in administrating the incentives. Whether it was the pressure of meeting quotas or just pure ignorance, the enlistee should not bear the responsibility to pay back that which was given,” Lake said. “The only exception would be if the enlistee knew that the integrity of the incentive program was being breached.”

“One hopes the current class action suit filled in Sacramento — where the suit asked the court to order the recovered money to be returned to the soldiers and to issue an injunction against the government barring further collection — will succeed,” Lake added. “Additionally, it is time to get the politicians involved with the Pentagon and stop this madness. Soldiers deserve better from the nation they have served.”

LifeZette senior writer Deirdre Reilly contributed to this report.

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