November is a time to honor America’s veterans. But instead, the Pentagon is waging a bitter battle with nearly 10,000 of them.
The battle can be traced back to 2006 – the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. To fill its ranks, the Pentagon offered incentives (monetary bonuses, loans, tuition repayment etc.) to soldiers with certain assignments, such as intelligence and civil affairs. However, in a desperate attempt to meet re-enlistment targets, the California National Guard offered the incentives widely. In total, it provided at least $15,000 to 9,700 soldiers.
The “rampant fraud and mismanagement” was uncovered in 2010. One guard pled guilty to filing false claims of $15.2 million and was sentenced to 30 months in prison. But it didn’t end there. In a series of “accusatory” and “aggressive” letters, the Pentagon demanded repayment from the 9,700 soldiers.
Many soldiers struggled to meet the demands. Some depleted their life savings or re-mortgaged their home. Others agreed to repayment plans and wage garnishment. To compound the problem, veterans were charged interest on any amount owing and their credit scores plummeted.
These struggles have sparked an outcry from veterans, non-profits, and the public. One veteran said “It’s an insult to my service! We wonder why veterans are homeless [and] why they don’t trust the system”. The American Legion added “[The soldiers’] decision to volunteer…was based on the understanding that the government would provide promised incentives…the roughly 9,700 veterans did not cause this problem but, instead, honored their commitments faithfully”. Finally, a Platoon Sergeant said, “We can bail out the banks, but we can’t bail out the veterans that fight and die for this country?”
Last week, the Department of Defense responded. After recouping $22 million from veterans, Secretary Ashton Carter announced that the Pentagon would temporarily suspend its repayment program. Yet, veterans are not completely out of the line of fire. The Pentagon plans to review each case one-by-one until July 1, 2017. Thus, veterans will have to endure months of wondering “whether the bill collector is going to come after them.” Some “still may be ordered to surrender the money”.