Why Thousands of Combat Vets Have to Repay Their Enlistment Bonuses
Policy + Politics

Why Thousands of Combat Vets Have to Repay Their Enlistment Bonuses

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The watchdog charged with monitoring how American money is spent in Afghanistan has in recent years identified projects in which hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars have been wasted or gone missing: More than $100 million in over-budget expenditures to build the Afghan Ministry of Defense building and $150 million blown on luxury residences for members of the task force charged with rebuilding the Iraqi and Afghan economies, for example.

In total, the Defense Department’s controversial Task Force for Stability and Business Operations spent close to $800 million – some of which was unaccounted for -- before it was disbanded.

Related: Has the Navy Wasted Billions on Its New Combat Ship?

But while Pentagon bean-counters can let millions float away in Afghanistan, they are not about to allow a bunch of American soldiers who fought there get away with keeping the piddling bonus overpayments they were given to re-enlist when their services were so sorely needed a decade or so ago.

The military has been trying to claw back excessive bonuses that the California National Guard paid to about 10,000 veterans – some of whom went on multiple combat tours – according to The Los Angeles Times.

The Times says that with ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan 10 years ago, the military was eager to boost re-enlistment and in many cases offered incentives of $15,000 or more that went beyond what was allowed. Now the Pentagon is trying to get back millions in overpayments, including interest, using tax liens and wage garnishments.

Among those being hounded is an Army captain and Iraq War veteran who had to take out a second mortgage to pay back more than $45,000 in reenlistment bonuses and student loans to which he apparently was not entitled. Another is a female master sergeant who served for more than 25 years and now is struggling to repay over $20,000 in erroneous re-up incentives.

Related: The $43 Million Afghan Gas Station

The Times said 42 auditors went through payments to some 14,000 California Guard soldiers after reports of improper payments surfaced in 2010, and about $22 million has been recovered.

Military recruiters, under pressure to keep the pipeline full of troops, once handed out bonuses with abandon. But the bonuses were actually intended only for those who would be deploying to Iraq or Afghanistan as part of short-handed units or who were in high-demand jobs such as intelligence and public affairs.

One Special Forces soldier who is resisting the Pentagon’s efforts was injured by a roadside bomb after going on hundreds of missions against insurgents in Iraq. He now has permanent brain and back injuries. Earlier this year, he got a letter from the Treasury Department saying that his “unpaid delinquent debt” stemming from a $15,000 bonus was now up to almost $20,000 with interest and penalties.

The deputy commander of the California Guard told the Times that the Guard couldn’t absolve the soldiers of their “debts” without breaking the law.

But as President Obama rightly grants clemency to hundreds of prisoners serving excessive sentences for nonviolent drug crimes, he might also consider handing out some forgiveness to men and women whose only crime was agreeing to serve their country a little longer.