We love our veterans, right? Americans like to say so.
We invite them to march in parades; we offer ceremonial tributes at their funerals. We applaud them at football games, discount their gym fees, rotate their tires for free. We consider ourselves a grateful nation.
Why, then, would a grateful nation use hectoring collection tactics to recoup signing bonuses that soldiers accepted in good faith? Why would it garnish their wages and bully them with bill collectors for money they were never supposed to owe?
This is what is happening now to nearly 10,000 American servicemen and women who served – many in combat roles – in Iraq and Afghanistan. As The Los Angeles Times reported over the weekend, signing and retention bonuses paid a decade ago to keep the all-volunteer Army at target strength, mostly in California, have been declared fraudulent – and repayable by people who did not commit the fraud.
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“I feel totally betrayed,” said Army veteran Susan Haley, a Los Angeles native now living in Texas, who was interviewed for the Times story. Haley said a quarter of her family’s income now goes to repaying a re-signing bonus that Pentagon auditors determined years later she had been awarded in error. The family, she said, is in danger of losing their home.
“They’ll get their money back,” Haley said bitterly. “But I want those years back.”
This isn’t entirely banner news. Government accountants have known as far back as 2010 that at the height of the Iraq and Afghan wars, some military executives recklessly paid out retention bonuses or assumed student loans in order to meet manpower targets. Abuses of the bonus programs occurred in every state, but nowhere more than in the California Guard, which paid out thousands of unauthorized signing bonuses.
As a result of those disclosures, a few medium- to high-level heads rolled – California alone is on the hook for overpayments running a high as $100,000,000.
But now, years later, the bills are crashing – seemingly out of the blue – on ordinary men and women who accepted those bonuses in good faith and fulfilled the terms of their service obligations. Many fought in combat. Some were awarded Purple Hearts.
This is by no means the only sorry example our nation has of coming up short on commitments to its military vets: Just take a good, long look at problems in the trouble-plagued Veterans Administration’s health care system. This one, though, carries stark bureaucratic ingratitude to cruel new heights.
My father and brothers are veterans. My youngest brother, Paul, lost part of a hand in Iraq. The idea of tormenting people like them – garnishing their wages, slapping them with tax liens, hounding them for interest-bloated repayments – ignites an angry, slow burn in my cranium. It should in yours, too.
California Guard authorities say there’s nothing they can do: Legally, they can’t just erase the debt.
But Congress could. U.S. lawmakers, who are going to be in serious need of some soothing bipartisan tonic after this extraordinarily ugly election is finally done, could make this a project. It could, not at all coincidentally, use some heightened legislative attention right around Nov. 11 – Veterans Day – and wash away some of that bitter electoral aftertaste.
At least one online petition has been launched urging legislative action to forgive these unanticipated debts.
Meanwhile a handful of these soldiers are appealing the demands, financing the fight from their own pockets. Others are struggling to pay the unexpected bills by re-mortgaging homes or taking on second jobs. They’ve done nothing wrong; they accepted incentives that were offered a decade ago, and now the Pentagon is demanding they give it back.
All those parades and price discounts and halftime ceremonies ring awfully hollow in a nation that lets this happen.
We’ve got a lot to fix in this country. I can’t think of a worthier place to start than this.
Jacquielynn Floyd is a columnist for the Dallas Morning News. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.