The US military is trying to reclaim signing bonuses and student loan compensation it says it improperly awarded to 9,700 California soldiers during the mid- to late 2000s, at the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The LA Times reports that soldiers who served their six-year contracts to completion are now being placed in debt collection for failing to return their bonuses, which in many cases were as high as $25,000. 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. "I signed a contract that I literally risked my life to fulfill," says former Army sergeant first class Robert Richmond, one of the soldiers from whom the government is trying to reclaim money. "They’ll get their money, but I want those years back," says former Army master sergeant Susan Haley.
The issue, NPR reports, stems from a 2010 discovery that California's National Guard office had misspent up to $100 million. Independent audits revealed the money had gone to signing bonuses for soldiers who shouldn't have been eligible for such compensation. (It was meant to be limited to "soldiers in high-demand assignments ... [or] noncommissioned officers badly needed in units due to deploy," per the Times.) A years-long review of the program revealed almost 10,000 incidences of improperly awarded bonuses—bonuses the military say it's legally required to recoup. No one, from soldiers to military leadership to lawmakers, is happy about the situation. The military says it would happily defer the debts if Congress would legalize it. As the story gains more media traction, the California House of Representatives on Sunday condemned the Pentagon's effort to recoup the money, and pledged to do what it could to help the veterans. (Read more California stories.)