By Holly Yan and Curt Devine, CNN
Ten years after the Pentagon enticed soldiers to reenlist by offering hefty bonuses, officials are demanding thousands of those veterans pay the money back.
Christopher Van Meter is one of the affected veterans in California. He earned a Purple Heart after he was hurled from an armored vehicle in Iraq. By 2007, he had already served 15 years in the Army and was about to retire — until the military encouraged him to reenlist.
“They entice you with another reenlistment bonus. Those bonuses were … around $15,000,” Van Meter told CNN’s “New Day” on Monday.
“We were in the Iraq and Afghanistan war at the time. And they wanted to keep soldiers in the military.”
(Ten years after the Pentagon enticed soldiers to reenlist by offering hefty bonuses, officials are demanding thousands of those veterans pay the money back. CNN’s Drew Griffin reports. Courtesy of CNN and YouTube)
But years later, officials realized Van Meter and thousands of other veterans were not actually eligible for the bonuses they were given.
As first reported by the Los Angeles Times, only soldiers with certain assignments — for example, intelligence, civil affairs and some noncommissioned officer posts — were supposed to get bonuses.
But investigators uncovered rampant fraud and mismanagement by California Guard officials trying to meet enlistment targets.
How this happened
The California Guard’s incentive manager, retired Master Sgt. Toni Jaffe, pleaded guilty in 2011 to filing false claims of $15.2 million, the Department of Justice said in a statement.
“When she pleaded guilty, Jaffe admitted that from the fall of 2007 through October 2009, she routinely submitted false and fictitious claims on behalf of her fellow California National Guard members,” the Department of Justice said in a statement.
“Jaffe admitted that she submitted claims to pay bonuses to members of the California National Guard whom she knew were not eligible to receive the bonuses and to pay off officer’s loans, even though she knew the officers were ineligible for loan repayment.”
In 2012, the sergeant was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison.
Three officers also pleaded guilty to fraud and were put on probation after paying restitution, the Times reported.
But, now, thousands of soldiers are paying the real price.
(With tears in her eyes and holding her microphone with a shaky hand, Amanda Souza told President Barack Obama about her husband who committed suicide after not treating PTSD caused by his deployment. Courtesy of MSNBC World News and YouTube)
California National Guard: Our hands are tied
The California National Guard said it can’t just ignore the debts — even if it wants to.
“The bonus audit and recoupment process is a federal program governed and adjudicated by the National Guard Bureau and the Department of the Army. The California National Guard does not have the authority to unilaterally waive these debts,” it said in a statement.
“However, the California National Guard welcomes any law passed by Congress to waive these debts. Until that time, our priority is to advocate for our soldiers during this difficult process.”
Defense Department responds
The affected soldiers can petition to have the debt waived, Defense Department spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said.
“There has been a formal process in place for some time through which affected service members can be relieved of responsibility to repay improperly awarded bonuses,” Davis said.
Van Meter told CNN said he has petitioned multiple times, but “to no avail.”
Davis said the military has “the authority to waive individual repayments on one by one basis,” but does not have the authority to issue blanket waivers.
‘We are the ones who owe a debt’
California senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer urged the Defense Department to use its authority to waive repayment.
“They (soldiers) accepted these incentive payments in good faith and at the height of the Iraq War, when the Department was having difficulty retaining service members,” they said in a statement.
“Many of these individuals paid a heavy price for their service — including severe injuries sustained after reenlisting. Now they are facing interest charges, wage garnishment, tax liens, and other penalties.
(Six years after he lost all his limbs in an explosion in Afghanistan, John Peck has human arms again. Peck is one of only 25 people in the world to receive a double-arm transplant. David Martin has more. Courtesy of CBS Evening News and YouTube)