Calif. National Guardsmen Wait For Resolution To Bonus Scandal

Oct 26, 2016
Originally published on October 26, 2016 7:33 am
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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Members of Congress and veterans groups are outraged about the California National Guard forcing former soldiers to pay back bonuses - bonuses they received during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The statements have been coming thick and fast. Disgraceful, insulting, a bone-headed decision are just some of the ways the move is being described. NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman has been following this story, and he's here to tell us where all of this righteous indignation might be headed. Tom, good morning.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: First of all, do we have any clearer sense about why this is happening?

BOWMAN: Well, Renee, first of all, the bottom line is that California National Guard, a decade ago, gave out millions of dollars in improper re-enlistment bonuses. Now, the bonuses were supposed to be narrowly targeted to key jobs - you know, linguists, special operations soldiers, civil affairs and the like. But thousands of Guard soldiers got them undeservedly because a California Guard was worried about losing soldiers.

They had to keep their re-enlistments up. And remember, this is right in the middle of two wars. There were a lot of casualties at that time. So an investigation led to a jail term for a Guard recruiter. Others were implicated, too. And the Guard started an investigation that was recently completed. And they concluded, listen, we want the money back.

California National Guard says, we have no choice; we can't waive these bonuses. The law says we have to get that money. Now, the Guard says it reached out to congressmen and other federal leaders, Renee, two years ago, encouraging them to forgive these debts. Not much happened until this past weekend, after a front-page story in the LA Times by David Cloud.

MONTAGNE: And, of course, the veterans themselves, what are they saying about what happened to them?

BOWMAN: Well, some veterans have ignored the repayment letters. Others have filed lawsuits. And many are writing their congressmen. And some veterans, like Chris Van Meter, who was wounded in Iraq, have paid up. At first, he told me the Guard started to garner his wages - 20 percent of his wages. And then this is what he said to me.

CHRIS VAN METER: I owed $46,000 through a re-enlistment bonus, a student loan repayment and an officer accession bonus.

BOWMAN: So Chris Van Meter told me he was stunned and angry when he was told to repay four years ago, with interest. Now, he never thought he got too much in bonuses. He thought they were deserved. And when he reached out to the Guard recently for help, they just told him, listen, you're just going to have to pay for this.

MONTAGNE: Well, we're talking here about California, but are there troops from elsewhere in the country who are - might have been affected?

BOWMAN: Well, Congress is looking into that now. Clearly, California had the biggest problem. There was criminal activity here. We know there have been reports about some improper payments in Oregon, New Mexico. And I'm told those audits are ongoing. And NPR reporters say the Guard is telling them they have no problems in other states, for example, Illinois, North Carolina and Tennessee. So the situation is different around the country. You know, right now, nobody seems to have a complete picture on this. And, of course, with these stories about it coming out now, there's a lot of focus, a lot of attention on it.

MONTAGNE: So what about Congress? I mean, if they were - if it was informed - so going to do something now?

BOWMAN: Well, first, you know, congressmen are saying, we want the Guard to try to stop these getting - trying to get back this money. And some congressmen are saying, we'll just add language in the upcoming defense bill to waive those repayments, right? But even if it stops, what happens to people who repaid their mistaken bonuses, like Chris Van Meter? Do they get the money back? There's still a lot of questions about how this is going to be resolved.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.