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It’s rarely of any shock when we hear about some government program or agency in shambles and total disarray. However, those stories never compare to the dismay we experience when we hear about poor and improper treatment of our nation’s veterans.

Yet, that story is currently unraveling in California where a recent LA Times story detailed the nearly 10,000 California soldiers who were recently forced to repay enlistment bonuses a decade after going to war. Apparently, the military illegally paid out those bonuses in order to retain enough troops to continue fighting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. As the LA Times reports,

Short of troops to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan a decade ago, the California National Guard enticed thousands of soldiers with bonuses of $15,000 or more to reenlist and go to war. Now the Pentagon is demanding the money back.

In other words, veterans were lured into defending the nation, risked their lives on the country’s behalf, and were then told to give Uncle Sam his money back.

The issue came to light after the military conducted an audit of the California National Guard and determined that, in an attempt to meet enlistment targets, the Guard falsely offered hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses and other benefits.

Since the California Guard handed out taxpayer dollars that were not authorized by law, the military now has little choice but to demand the money back. As you can imagine, many of these soldiers no longer have access to bonuses that were paid years ago, resulting in unfortunate financial hardships.

The LA Times interviewed Christopher Van Meter, a former Army captain that served in Iraq. He told the newspaper that after being ordered to repay the enlistment bonus — or face interest charges, wage garnishments, and tax liens — he is now refinancing his home to repay $25,000 in bonuses and $21,000 in student loans.

Depending on the employment status of the 10,000 troops that now owe the government money, there could hundreds of former troops who are too poor to repay the government.

CBS News profile of Susan Haley, a former Army master sergeant who served in Afghanistan is one example. CBS writes, “She said she sends the Pentagon $650 a month – a quarter of her family’s income – to pay down her debt to the military.” She’s not alone. Many soldiers have already started to repay their service bonuses; the military has recouped $22 million so far.

The reality is that members of the military only make modest incomes. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), as of 2012, the fourth-most-junior-pay grade (E-4, Army corporal) with between four and six years of service may earn basic pay of $27,200 — in addition to an allowance of $4,180, and, on average, $14,820 for housing.

This particular group of soldiers in California, many age 18-34, are veterans from the Gulf and Afghanistan wars, a cohort of veterans that has the highest poverty rates among all veterans. According to the National Veterans Association, there are nearly 1.6 million veterans currently living in poverty; or seven percent of all veterans. Depending on the employment status of the 10,000 troops that now owe the government money, there could hundreds of former troops who are too poor to repay the government.

Since the bonuses were handed out without legal authorization, the military has little ability to correct the deplorable situation these soldiers now face. However, recent political pressure from Congress, and the media, did result in temporary action. It was reported this morning that Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, has suspended efforts to collect bonuses and benefits from service members until the problem is resolved, legislatively or otherwise.

At the end of the day, however, the California Guard is responsible for the mess. One hopes that the Pentagon will take swift action to punish those responsible. It will also likely require a legal fix by Congress in order to fulfill the promises made to these soldiers. Military investigators believe this problem could cost the taxpayer up to $100 million to fix.

Sadly, this incident is merely one in a long list of mismanagement problems at the Pentagon. In fact, just last July the Inspector General at the Department of Defense (DoD) found that the military was forced to make trillions of dollars in improper accounting adjustments in order to balance its books. Now it appears that financial ineptitude has become a systemic problem within our military.

The world is a dangerous place. World powers like China and Russia are becoming more belligerent. Groups like ISIS and Iran continue to create instability in the Middle East and around the world. Therefore, perhaps no government agency requires a more competent use of resources than the Pentagon, and more importantly, the fair and professional treatment of those who are asked to defend America and our freedom.



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