PORTLAND, Ore. – The National Guard confirmed Tuesday that it will allow an Oregon recruit the $20,000 bonus it promised her in 2007, even though it believes the money was among $34 million worth of incentives improperly granted in recent years.
The Guard changed its position in the case of Pfc. Chelsea Wells after congressional pressure to honor her contract. A month ago, it asked her to return the first half of the bonus, which she got in 2008, and refused to pay the second half — even though it didn't suggest she had done anything wrong.
Since Wells' case came to light in mid-July, the Guard has revealed that a new verification system has found that more than 4,000 bonuses nationwide were "improperly offered to the applicant" in 2007-2009. Those incentives had been offered by recruiters and enlistment officers.
The Guard said it sent a memo saying Wells would be paid as a matter of good management practices and of "equity and good conscience." Where soldiers acted in good faith, the Guard would try to get them their money, said Lt. Col. Les' Melnyk, a spokesman for the National Guard Bureau, which oversees state Guard units.
The Guard hasn't said how many of those recruits have been paid.
Wells had appealed to U.S. Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, who protested along with other members of the state's congressional delegation and met with the leader of the Army National Guard, Maj. Gen. Raymond Carpenter.
The Guard said it would release details about the bonuses after Walden and Carpenter meet again this week. It said that in Oregon, the contracts of 15 other Guard members with bonuses totaling $262,500 were questioned, and it resolved 13 of those cases in the soldiers' favor.
The Guard has not responded to questions about other details of the bonuses, such as whether disciplinary action or criminal investigations are contemplated.
Wells, 21, of Milton-Freewater, received the first half of her bonus for enlisting in a "critical skills" job — intelligence analyst. She enlisted in 2007, finished high school and trained in 2008. Married to a member of the U.S. Army, she moved from the eastern Oregon town to Georgia last year and joined the Guard there.
When she applied for the second half of her bonus, the Guard said it found that the job category specified in her contract wasn't on the list of critical skills when she signed. She insisted on her money.
"Some people have said they would have done it in a quiet way," Wells said Tuesday. "This is something you can't be quiet about."
Her case opened a window into the Guard's recruitment practices, which involve a variety of incentives. Last month, a former manager of bonuses for the California National Guard pleaded guilty to submitting false claims from 2007 to 2009 for $15.2 million in bonuses and other payments to Guard members who weren't eligible for them.
The Sacramento Bee said its investigation turned up evidence of as much as $100 million in improper or illegal bonuses and student loan repayments.
In response to questions from The Associated Press, the Guard has acknowledged finding widespread instances, in every state, of incorrect bonus payments.
"Some mistakes did occur during the manual input of information," generally at enlistment, said National Guard Bureau spokeswoman Rose Richeson in a written response. She said more than $34 million was "pending resolution."
Melnyk said the verification of recruits' eligibility was unrelated to the California case.