The commander of the California National Guard reportedly cannot locate more than 4,000 of the some 9,700 soldiers involved in the enlistment bonus scandal.
In a memo obtained by the Los Angeles Times on Monday, Maj. Gen. David Baldwin said the California National Guard needed help finding thousands of soldiers who received alleged improper bonuses or other benefits during the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan about 10 years ago. The bonuses were paid to entice more people to enlist during the height of the conflicts, a 2013 Inspector General’s report deemed some excessive.
Baldwin also added that most of the 9,700 current and former National Guard soldiers unknowingly receiver the incentives and enlisted “in good faith at a time of war,” according to the memo.
Despite Baldwin’s note, the Treasury Department had already tracked down some of the 4,000 soldiers long ago through tax returns and made them repay their bonuses. That sparked a firestorm of criticism toward the Pentagon from Congress. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy called the Pentagon demands “disgraceful."
Brett Sholtis left the California National Guard in 2007 and moved to York, Pa. He refused the Treasury Department’s request to pay back more than $2,000 he allegedly owed and his refusal prompted the department to garnish his wages and claimed his 2015 tax refund until the debt was paid off.
“I was one of those soldiers who couldn’t be located,” Sholtis told the LA Times on Monday. “They made a weak effort and then immediately proceeded to step two — turning it over to Treasury.”
Iraq veteran and former Army Capt. Christopher Van Meter, 42, was ordered to repay a $25,000 reenlistment bonus the Pentagon said he was ineligible to receive. He was also asked to repay $21,000 in student loan repayments.
Van Meter told the LA Times that rather than fight the Army he paid back the money after refinancing his home.
“These bonuses were used to keep people in,” Van Meter said. “People like me just got screwed.”
The soldiers who are apparently missing are likely to have retired, changed addresses, moved to other units across the nation or transferred to the Army, officials said.
An office has been setup in Sacramento for current and former California National Guardsmen to help find the missing soldiers.
Some guardsmen face serious punishment for not returning their bonuses. Eight current or former members of the California National Guard were indicted in 2014 on federal charges for fraudulently obtaining recruiting referral bonuses, according to The Associated Press.
Military.com reported that one former service member was enticed by a $10,000 bonus to leave the Reserves and join the California National Guard as a military police member for a deployment to Iraq in 2009.
The developments have made Sholtis skeptical of the government’s effort to help the guardsmen. He said the California Guard’s attempt to locate him consisted of a registered letter to his old address in California informing him of the bonus mishap. When he did not reply, the Defense Financing Accounting Service was notified.
The agency found no record he was still in the military and his name was forward to the Treasury Department, which eventually found him through tax records.
Sholtis contacted the California Guard to figure why he owed money and why he was getting fined. According to the LA Times, the paperwork for his $2,000 enlistment bonuses was missing. Sholtis’ paycheck was garnished and was denied pre-approval for a Veterans’ Affairs home loan.
“It’s profound incompetence mixed with indifference,” he said.
Other parts of the Defense Department have mismanaged similar bonus programs.
Earlier this year, the Pentagon's bomb squad team was saddled with debt due to an accounting error. One member of the team committed suicide. The department agreed to forgive the debt after Military.com and The Washington Post reported on the case.