Around 2004, when America was at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and struggling to recruit and retain soldiers to fight in those places, the U.S. military used unprecedented bonuses to attract new soldiers, and convince others to re-up on their contracts instead of going back to civilian life.
The bonuses, which in some cases were more then $15,000—paid up front—helped the military keep its enlistment numbers up for the war. The soldiers who received them thought they were keeping up their end of the bargain by fighting in brutally dangerous war zones, sometimes suffering permanent injuries or post-traumatic stress, but apparently they were wrong.
As the Los Angeles Times first reported last week, thousands of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who served in the California National Guard and received those bonuses a decade ago have been ordered to pay them back after military auditors say they realized the payments should never have been made in the first place. Altogether, more than $20 million is supposed to be paid back, and those veterans are facing collections, wage garnishment, and additional fines if they don't pay up.
One former soldier, Christopher Van Meter, told CNN that he was about to retire when a large bonus enticed him to stay in a few more years. After he finally did retire, he was told he'd have to pay back $46,000, which included student loan payments, a reenlistment bonus and an officer's bonus. Van Meter, who received a Purple Heart after he was thrown from an armored vehicle in Iraq, described being forced to refinance his home just to pay the giant debt, which was making it impossible to provide for his children.
Another soldier, Robert Richmond, received permanent brain injuries when a roadside bomb exploded by his vehicle in Iraq, told the Times he was stunned to find out he'd have to pay back $15,000 he didn't have. In all, a reported 9,700 former California National Guardsmen have been ordered to pay back some amount of money.
CNN reports that the Defense Department responded this week by saying that people can apply to have the debt waived, though some of the soldiers who owe money told reporters that they'd applied multiple times with no result.
As of Monday, dozens of members of Congress, as well as Hillary Clinton, have expressed outrage about the situation. Many have sent letters to Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, asking him to suspend the repayments.