Calif. Guard can’t find 4,000 who got bonus

Baltimore Sun - - NATION - By David S. Cloud

WASH­ING­TON — The Cal­i­for­nia Na­tional Guard can’t lo­cate more than 4,000 of the 9,700 sol­diers caught upin the mil­i­tary en­list­ment bonus scan­dal that has rocked one of the na­tion’s largest Guard or­ga­ni­za­tions, ac­cord­ing to its com­man­der.

In an in­ter­nal memo ob­tained by the Los An­ge­les Times, Maj. Gen. David Bald­win said the Cal­i­for­nia Guard needed help find­ing thou­sands of sol­diers who re­ceived im­proper en­list­ment bonuses or other in­cen­tives at the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars a decade ago.

Bald­win also wrote that the vast ma­jor­ity of the 9,700 cur­rent and for­mer Cal­i­for­nia Guard sol­diers who re­ceived im­proper pay­ments did so “un­know­ingly” and en­listed “in good faith at a time of war.”

His Oct. 27 memo is one of the first un­equiv­o­cal state­ments by a se­nior mil­i­tary of­fi­cial since the bonus scan­dal sur­faced that most Cal­i­for­nia Guard sol­diers did not know they were get­ting money im­prop­erly. It sug­gests most may be el­i­gi­ble to have some or all of their debts for­given un­der a spe­cial Pen­tagon re­view.

But the new Pen­tagon in­quiry al­ready ap­pears mired in con­fu­sion. De­spite Bald­win’s as­ser­tions, the Trea­sury De­part­ment tracked down some of the 4,000 sol­diers long ago through tax re­turns and forced them to re­pay their bonuses, rais­ing ques­tions about whether the Pen­tagon will now re­turn the money.

Brett Sholtis, who left the Cal­i­for­nia Guard in 2007 and now lives in York, PA., re­ceived a let­ter from the Trea­sury De­part­ment in 2015 or­der­ing him to re­pay $2,500.79 that he was given Cal­i­for­nia Na­tional Guard Maj. Gen. David Bald­win says most sol­diers took bonuses in good faith. af­ter he first en­listed in 2001.

When he re­fused to pay, the Trea­sury De­part­ment gar­nished his wages and claimed his 2015 fed­eral tax re­fund un­til the debt was paid last spring, he said.

“I was one of those sol­diers who couldn’t be lo­cated,” Sholtis said Mon­day. “They made a weak ef­fort and then im­me­di­ately pro­ceeded to Step Two — turn­ing it over to Trea­sury.”

A Los An­ge­les Times story posted Oct. 22 about the en­list­ment bonus re­pay­ment de­mands to Cal­i­for­nia Guard sol­diers and vet­er­ans, in­clud­ing some who were wounded in bat­tle, sparked a pub­lic furor about what many viewed as an in­jus­tice.

Four days later, De­fense Sec­re­tary Ash­ton Carter sus­pended the debt re­cov­ery pro­gram and or­dered faster ap­peals for sol­diers and vet­er­ans seek­ing re­lief from the debts. He set a July 1 dead­line next year to com­plete the process.

Bald­win said the Pen­tagon’s ef­forts to re­cover the money has brought hard­ship to many sol­diers and vet­er­ans, “who signed up for in­cen­tives based on mis­in­for­ma­tion about their el­i­gi­bil­ity.”

The sup­pos­edly miss­ing sol­diers in Bald­win’s memo are likely to have re­tired, changed ad­dresses, moved to Guard units in other states or trans­ferred to ac­tive duty, of­fi­cials said.

The af­fected sol­diers did not re­spond to let­ters sent by the Cal­i­for­nia Guard to ad­dresses on file for them, the of­fi­cials said.

Bald­win asked cur­rent and for­mer Cal­i­for­nia Guard mem­bers for help lo­cat­ing the sol­diers. He di­rected them to the Sol­dier In­cen­tives and As­sis­tance Cen­ter, an of­fice set up in Sacra­mento to help sol­diers ap­peal to the Pen­tagon for waivers of some or all of the debts.

With the cen­ter’s help, “hun­dreds of sol­diers … have had their debts for­given or have cor­rected their records,” he wrote. “Un­for­tu­nately, more than 4,000 Sol­diers with er­rors in their in­cen­tive pack­ets have not had the same op­por­tu­nity.”

In 2010, af­ter the Sacra­mento Bee first re­ported cor­rup­tion in the Cal­i­for­nia Guard en­list­ment pay­ments, an FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tion found that of­fi­cials had given mil­lions of dol­lars in bonuses and stu­dent loan pay­ments to sol­diers who did not qual­ify for them, or who were ap­proved de­spite pa­per­work er­rors.

A Cal­i­for­nia Guard au­dit of the en­list­ment con­tracts, com­pleted this Septem­ber, con­cluded that 9,700 sol­diers had re­ceived im­proper bonuses and other pay­ments.

Nearly 100 Cal­i­for­nia Guard mem­bers have been dis­ci­plined for know­ingly pay­ing or ac­cept­ing im­proper bonuses.

Ase­nior Cal­i­for­nia Guard of­fi­cial, Col. Dar­rin Ben­der, blamed the im­proper pay­ments on the pres­sure re­cruiters faced to fill Army ranks start­ing in about 2005, when the Pen­tagon was en­gaged in bit­ter fight­ing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

RICH PEDRONCELLI/AP 2012

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