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Thousands Of California Soldiers Forced To Repay Enlistment Bonuses

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

A decade ago, the California National Guard offered soldiers thousands of dollars in bonuses to re-enlist and go fight in Iraq or Afghanistan. Now, the Pentagon says many of those bonuses - $15,000 or more, paid out to almost 10,000 soldiers - were given improperly. And they're asking soldiers to give the money back.

David Cloud covers the Pentagon and the military for the Los Angeles Times. He first reported this story in a piece that was published on Saturday.

Welcome to the show.

DAVID CLOUD: Oh, thanks for having me.

MCEVERS: So first just tell us what were these bonuses and why were they given out in the first place?

CLOUD: Well, they're re-enlistment bonuses generally. So they're paid in order to encourage soldiers to sign up for another tour in the Army, generally for six years. And they were being paid at a time when the California Guard desperately needed soldiers to fill the ranks of units going to Iraq. So they were more generous than usual.

MCEVERS: But Pentagon policy does allow for bonuses to retain people at these times. What went wrong?

CLOUD: Well, it turned out that many of the people who received the bonuses actually didn't qualify for the bonuses under the strict rules at the time. So long after the fact, you know, 10 years in some cases, the Pentagon is going back and saying, hey, you remember that $15,000 we gave you? Remember that $20,000 we gave you? We want it back.

MCEVERS: Is this the result of fraud on someone's part? Or is it just mismanagement, just mistakes?

CLOUD: You know, it's a result of both from what we can tell. There were clearly California Guard officials in 2010 who were handing out bonuses left and right improperly and soldiers got a lot of them. In other cases, they just didn't do the paperwork. And so there's no record of why soldiers got this money.

Yes, there was fraud. There's also mismanagement, a whole raft of things which came to light a number of years ago. And then they did audits to determine which soldiers were not owed the money. Those audits just finished last month.

MCEVERS: Why'd it take so long?

CLOUD: We're talking about 14,000 soldiers. And they had 40 auditors going through soldier records. And it took them years to go through all those.

MCEVERS: The government, of course, has an obligation to use taxpayers' money wisely. And when it makes a mistake, it's supposed to correct it. You know, I guess some would say now the Pentagon's just doing its job by asking for the money back, right?

CLOUD: It is. But you also have to take into account the hardship that this imposes on families and on soldiers...

MCEVERS: Right.

CLOUD: ...Many of whom took the money, went to Iraq and served in combat, came back. And now, as I said, many years later are being asked to pay it back. They've already paid a lot of this money for car payments, house payments, school payments. And they say we took this money in good faith...

MCEVERS: Right.

CLOUD: ...Why are you coming after us?

MCEVERS: I was going to say, is there one story that sticks out in particular to you of people you've talked to?

CLOUD: One of the largest repayments is by a guy in California who got $46,000 in bonuses and student loan payments, which are also covered by this recoupment. And so he's had to pay back $46,000. He had to refinance his house to make the payments. And it - he describes it, you know, very - as a very harsh process that, you know, led to lots of sleepless nights, lots of anxiety with his - about how he was going to pay the money back.

There's another woman who - a master sergeant who went to Afghanistan after receiving $15,000. She - her whole family served in the Army. She got the notice that she had to pay the money back when she was in the hospital caring for her son, another soldier who'd lost his leg in Afghanistan.

MCEVERS: House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who's from California, has called the Pentagon's orders disgraceful. He's now pledged to launch a House investigation into this. What do you think is likely to come of that?

CLOUD: I think there's a lot of momentum for Congress to do something, probably in the near term. I mean, that's one of - been one of the arguments that the California Guard has made here. Which is we know it's hard on soldiers, we have no choice but to get this money back. It would be nice if Congress would step in to waive these debts.

Now that it's gotten attention, Congress has kind of stepped into the breach here and may do something. I mean, certainly several senior lawmakers including Nancy Pelosi, Kevin McCarthy as you mentioned, have called for immediate action in the next few weeks on this. So we'll see.

MCEVERS: David Cloud's a reporter with the Los Angeles Times. Thank you.

CLOUD: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.