National Guard chief says 'tie goes to the soldier' in California re-enlistment bonus scandal

The head of the National Guard said Oct. 26 that the Pentagon will continue to investigate re-enlistment bonuses paid to thousands of California National Guard soldiers a decade ago and will force those who wrongfully accepted them to pay the money back.

Chief of the U.S. National Guard Bureau Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel said his office is looking into more than 13,600 cases that could be fraudulent, but he admitted investigators have to prove that the soldier knew they were accepting upwards of $15,000 they didn’t qualify for.

Sgt. Jeffrey Nelan, a Infantryman with the 184th Security Force Assistance Team, California National Guard, plays with Afghan children during a leadership engagement at the Afghan Uniformed Police headquarters in Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan, Sept. 25, 2013. (U.S. Army photo by Cpl. Harold Flynn

Sgt. Jeffrey Nelan, a Infantryman with the 184th Security Force Assistance Team, California National Guard, plays with Afghan children during a leadership engagement at the Afghan Uniformed Police headquarters in Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan, Sept. 25, 2013. | U.S. Army photo by Cpl. Harold Flynn

“The tie goes to the soldier,” Lengyel said at a breakfast meeting with defense reporters in Washington. “If their hands are clean where this soldier is doing their duty and doing their job, it is not our intent to try to enforce this hardship on them 10 years later.”

A nationwide furor erupted after a Los Angeles Times story revealed the California National Guard was demanding repayment with interest for some bonuses it doled out to its Guard troops as an incentive to re-enlist during the height of the Iraq war. The former head of the  state’s Guard incentive program was later convicted of filing over $15 million in false claims and the bureau began looking into the scope of the problem in 2012.

Some soldiers, the Times story alleges, have been forced to pay pack tens of thousands of dollars to the government after nearly a decade — some who sustained severe injuries during their subsequent deployments and have been financially ruined by the errors.

President Obama weighed in on the scandal Oct. 25 and reportedly ordered the Pentagon to speed up the audits, but he stopped short of asking for a blanket amnesty, the Times said.

Pentagon chief Ash Carter said in a statement the next day that he’s ordered a suspension of the paybacks and has asked his office to establish a more streamlined process to investigate fraud claims and allow Guard soldiers a speedier appeal.

“This process has dragged on too long, for too many service members,” Carter said. “Too many cases have languished without action. That’s unfair to service members and to taxpayers.”

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Guard officials claim over 13,600 questionable bonuses were paid out to California soldiers in the mid-2000s — some for re-enlistment incentives, others for education reimbursement. About 1,100 bonuses were given to soldiers who officials allege were not entitled to them, about 4,000 were error free and about 5,300 had paperwork errors. There are still about 3,200 that Guard officials are still trying to track down.

So far about 2,000 soldiers have been asked to pay back all or part of their bonus cash, Guard officials say.

Lengyel explained some of the more egregious cases included officers who took the cash to re-up when the money was intended to help fill the enlisted ranks, some who took bonuses to stay in certain jobs even though they were already in the process of changing their roles in the Army Guard and others who took re-enlisted bonuses despite being on track to take a slot at officer candidate’s school.

“Was there an intent to trick the system, to take advantage of the fact that apparently there’s some new sheriff in town who’s handing out bonuses?” Lengyel wondered. “Unfortunately with all of this was mixed in some proven intent to defraud the government, in some cases. There was some intent to take money knowingly that you weren’t entitled to by some people.”

But he added that likely the vast majority of soldiers who took the bonuses didn’t have any intent to illegally work the system.

“We think there are a lot of people out there who were 22-year-old soldiers who were given information that they thought by all means they were entitled to the money,” Lengyel said. “They were told they could take this money, they were told that they were entitled to this money, they took the money, the re-enlisted and they went about whatever they were doing and they were given bad data.”

Guard officials say there are more cases of alleged fraud in the re-enlistment bonuses for National Guard troops in other states, but that they pale in comparison to the California errors. Lengyel said in all about $50 million in questionable bonuses were paid out in California during the period, and the Guard is investigating each one individually.

The National Guard is granting exceptions, he added, particularly for those who were paid bonuses without submitting records that they were actually eligible. Lengyel said, for example, a bonus paid out to a soldier that didn’t forward a copy of a high school diploma will likely be given a pass since he couldn’t have joined the Guard without it in the first place.

“That’s a technicality by which this member shouldn’t be levied a fine,” Lengyel said. “The blanket rule is to do the right thing.”

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been outraged by the story, with some already calling for an investigation into the issue and forwarding language to an upcoming defense bill that would give some bonus recipients amnesty. National Guard officials say they did notify Congress of the potential for bonus fraud but nothing was done.

Vet groups have been quick to side with California guardsmen, arguing it’s unfair to put so many soldiers in financial peril due to a former military official’s malfeasance.

“If any of these people were misled about their own eligibility for the bonus with the intent to keep them on, they shouldn’t be held responsible for that,” said John Hoellwarth, National Communications Director for AMVETS. “We think the benefit of the doubt has to be with the soldiers,”

Lengyel said his office is sending investigators to California to help speed up the process of determining whether a bonus or incentive was paid in error in hopes of helping affected soldiers get on with their lives.

“We’re focused on helping those service members who were doing the right thing and served their country and thought they were entitled to a bonus to get this out of their past and out of their way,” Lengyel said. “And we want to help California do that, and help the service members do that as quickly as we possibly can.”

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