Congressional members from California were quick to call out the Pentagon on Monday for ordering military veterans to give back benefits they received a decade ago as reenlistment incentives during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The bonuses were only supposed to be paid out to soldiers in high demand assignments that were needed in Iraq and Afghanistan at the time.
Christopher Van Meter is one of the affected veterans in California. Some have been told that they owe the government tens of thousands of dollars, including interest and penalties, and have been forced to take extreme measures, including taking out second mortgages on their homes, to come up with the money.
Soldiers who filed a class-action lawsuit seeking to block the bonus recoupment said Sunday that they have seen a sharp increase in visitors to California Veterans for Justice, a Facebook page seeking contributions to help defray the costs of the lawsuit. Toni Jaffe in 2012 was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison and required to repay $15.2 million after pleading guilty to fraud.
Mueller said that amid the payback requests, the California National Guard notified congress of the issue, even sending a draft of proposed legislation that would speed up the process of appealing debt to the Pentagon - the only way soldiers can be absolved from their owned money.
Following the story from The Los Angeles Times, the California National Guard issued a statement clarifying that the program in question is managed at the federal level.
California House members, led by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, sent a letter Monday to Carter asking that "further attempts to retrieve outstanding debt be halted".
"The California National Guard can not waive debts unilaterally, as that authority rests at the federal level", read a statement issued Tuesday by the California Military Department.
More than 10,000 California National Guardsmen received cash bonuses, the Pentagon says many of them by mistake. Of the 13,500 California cases it has reviewed already, the department has found errors in more than 5,400 and overpayments in 1,100 more.
Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., added that she was "shocked by the actions of the Pentagon and the California National Guard", and that she considers it unacceptable to "hold these courageous men and women accountable for the mistakes of their superiors".
"They took $3,000 out for taxes but I had to pay back the full $10,000".
"It is unacceptable to now subject them and their families to undue financial burdens thanks to mismanagement from the California National Guard and rigid bureaucracy on the part of the Pentagon". The soldiers, understandably, are less than thrilled that a government they put their lives on the line for is now trying to walk back on its promises.
Democratic California Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein also wrote to Defense Secretary Carter to appeal to waive the debts, saying that service members were unaware that their bonuses were fraudulent and had "paid a heavy price for their service - including severe injuries sustained after reenlisting".
It has now been revealed that the issue affects members in every state, meaning soldiers across the country owe large debts to the Pentagon.
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