How Pentagon efforts to claw back recruitment bonuses have affected soldiers

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HARI SREENIVASAN: But first: The Defense Department today tried to defuse a burgeoning controversy surrounding recruitment bonuses for soldiers.

The Pentagon faced a mounting outcry for trying to recoup enlistment bonuses from thousands of California National Guard members. But Defense Secretary Ash Carter interrupted a visit today to NATO headquarters in Brussels to address the issue.

ASHTON CARTER, Secretary of Defense: I have ordered the suspension of all efforts to collect reimbursement from affected California Guard members, and that suspension will continue until I’m satisfied that our process is working.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Over the weekend, The Los Angeles Times reported California Guard soldiers are being asked to repay bonuses of $15,000 or more. The payments were an effort to meet enlistment goals during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They were intended for soldiers with skills in high demand, but recruiters doled them out improperly. Some of the soldiers say, it’s not their fault.

SGT. 1ST CLASS BRYAN STROTHER, California National Guard: I had done everything that they had asked of me. These were promises that were made.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The push to take back the bonus money has also drawn angry reactions from Congress. Secretary Carter says he wants all the cases resolved by July 1.

We take a closer look at this now with Los Angeles Times reporter David Cloud, who broke this story, and Sergeant 1st Class Robert Richmond. He reenlisted in the California National Guard in 2006 and received a $15,000 bonus, but then was told he needed to pay the money back.

David, what’s happening now in terms of what the secretary of defense said today? What does his order do?

DAVID CLOUD, The Los Angeles Times: Well, his order halts the recoupment of all of these cases right now, and sets up a process to essentially speed up the appeals process that many soldiers have gone through and have, you know, in a very frustrating way, you know, gone through years of efforts to try to get this recoupment stopped.

So, the Pentagon is setting up a process to speed up those appeals.

HARI SREENIVASAN: How did we get here? How did we get to the point that he had to say, stop this?

DAVID CLOUD: It’s a long tale that really began in 2006, when the Guard and the Army as a whole needed troops to go to Iraq and to Afghanistan. So, they started paying large bonuses, and they started paying without a lot of controls.

And, in fact, there was a fair amount of fraud in what was done. Soldiers didn’t know about that. They — most soldiers didn’t know about that. They took the money in good faith, completed their enlistments. And then, a decade later, they get a bill from the Pentagon or from the National Guard saying, you have got to pay us this money back. A lot of them are justifiably shocked.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Robert Richmond, you were one of those soldiers that had this happen to them. How much did this money mean to you when you got it? And, more important, what happened to you when you were requested to return it?

SGT. 1ST CLASS ROBERT RICHMOND, U.S. Army Special Forces: Well, for me personally, the money meant something.

For other soldiers, because I’m just one of many, it meant the world. These other soldiers, it probably was everything, that they relied on that bonus solely for this.

For me, I partially relied on it. I had choices to go into the civilian sector, where I could earn a lot more money, even working as an adviser in a civilian capacity. But I asked if I was eligible for a bonus. They said I was eligible for $15,000 for six years.

I knew for a fact that that enlistment would send me back to Iraq. However, it was enough. And with the camaraderie of being with my unit, it was enough for me to make the decision to go ahead and enlist for another six years.

When they came back 10 years — you know, nine years later, actually, and said I have to pay this money back, I was in shock, in awe. And the more that it went on, I just felt betrayed. I felt it just — it lacked empathy.

I felt like I was some sort of a criminal, and they’re — going to give it back right now, or they were going to ruin my life financially, turning me in. And it was very threatening.

HARI SREENIVASAN: David, you said the government has already recouped, what, about $22 million of it. What happens to the people who have repaid sums of money that perhaps shouldn’t have?

DAVID CLOUD: That’s a very good question and is one that will be difficult to untangle.

There are soldiers I know, one in particular, who owed $46,000, and to pay that off, he and his family refinanced their home. So, they took steps that cost them money to pay off the money. To now go back and make them whole will not be an easy task.

But it’s one that I think the Pentagon will look at. I mean, this has generated so much outrage in Congress and so much attention that I think people who, you know, did take the steps to pay the money back, even thinking that they didn’t really owe it, will in some sense be made whole.

I’m not sure they will be made totally whole, but they will get some money back.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Robert, I see you shaking you head. One of the people that David spoke to in the story, she said, you know, go ahead, fine, take the money back, but give me my years back, too.

Where does this leave you?

SGT. 1ST CLASS ROBERT RICHMOND: Yes, it certainly won’t make me whole. You know, what I did in the military and what I did — you know, what happened to me, that — I signed a contract. I did that. That’s fine.

If you gave me my $15,000 bonus back, that would hardly make me whole, because by — with what they did to me, they ruined my credit. They ruined my finances. I have so many financial losses as a result. And I’m just — I’m in the middle of the group.

There are soldiers out there that have probably suffered so bad financially and emotionally that they will never be able to recover just by giving them their money back. It’s not even close.

HARI SREENIVASAN: David, it seems — there seems to be some agreement right now in Congress to say, this is horrible. By coincidence, there’s an election two weeks out. And part of your reporting showed that Congress was notified about this a couple of years ago.

DAVID CLOUD: Yes. That’s an interesting part of the story.

I mean, when the story broke on Saturday, you know, in the days after, you had a lot of members of Congress putting out press releases expressing a lot of outrage about it, saying something needed to be done.

As the story came out, it turned out the California Guard had gone to members of the California delegation two years earlier and asked them to pass a provision that would have helped allay some of these cases. The provision wasn’t passed at the time. Several members did initially propose it. It was dropped because it would have cost money.

And this was a time when sequestration, across-the-board cuts in the military budget were happening. There was just a resistance to doing that sort of thing. So, nothing happened until it appeared in our newspaper.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Robert, you set up a petition online, and I’m assuming that even before that, you have been listening to and hearing from other soldiers.

Give us a sense of how widespread this is. We are focusing on California right now, but there are National Guard members across the country.

SGT. 1ST CLASS ROBERT RICHMOND: That’s absolutely right.

When I first received my letter, I honestly thought I was the only one. And while I was calling people and asking questions, I came to find out there was nearly 17,000 soldiers affected, was the first number I heard. Then I heard it was 16,000 in California and at least 1,000 nationwide.

Recently, by doing my petition, people write to me all the time because I have my contact information in there. I recently was reached out to by somebody from the actual Navy who is having the same issues.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Sergeant 1st Class Robert Richmond and David Cloud of The L.A. Times, thank you both for joining us tonight.

DAVID CLOUD: Thank you.

SGT. 1ST CLASS ROBERT RICHMOND: Thank you very much.

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