US soldiers
Thousands of current and former US soldiers have been ordered to repay enlistment bonuses and student loans. REUTERS/Spc. Nikayla Shodeen/U.S. Army/Handout via Reuters

Thousands of California National Guards have been ordered to repay large enlistment bonuses, a decade after serving tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Pentagon is attempting to reclaim overpayments to the soldiers and is even threatening to hit them with interest charges, wage garnishments and tax liens if they refuse.

According to a report by The Los Angeles Times, soldiers are being forced to repay the bonuses as well as student loans they received to help fill the ranks. "These bonuses were used to keep people in," 42-year-old former Army captain and Iraq veteran Christopher Van Meter said.

Van Meter revealed he was forced to refinance his home mortgage in order to repay $25,000 (£20,454) in reenlistment bonuses and $21,000 (£17,181) in student loan repayments to the Army. The Purple Heart recipient added: "People like me just got screwed."

California Guard officials admit that taking the money from military veterans is unpleasant. The Pentagon, however, maintains the law requires it to reclaim the overpayments.

"At the end of the day, the soldiers ended up paying the largest price," Major General Matthew Beevers, deputy commander of the California Guard, told the LA Times. "We'd be more than happy to absolve these people of their debts. We just can't do it. We'd be breaking the law."

In the mid-2000s, the Pentagon offered major bonuses to retain soldiers fighting in the two wars. The LA Times reported that the Pentagon paid soldiers up front, much like businesses in the civilian sector. Colonel Michael S Piazzoni, a California Guard official in Sacramento who oversaw the audits said: "The system paid everybody up front, and then we spent the next five years figuring out if they were eligible."

The National Guard Bureau acknowledged that bonus overpayments happened across the country during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those bonuses were meant for soldiers in high-demand assignments or non-commissioned officers needed in units due to deploy. However, the money was handed out liberally in California.

A 2010 federal investigation revealed thousands of bonuses and student loan payments were given to California Guard soldiers who did not qualify for them, or were approved with paperwork errors. The California Guard then assigned 42 auditors to look through paperwork of 14,000 soldiers given bonuses and other incentive payments.

Of those soldiers, 9,700 of them have been ordered to repay all or some of their bonuses. The Pentagon has recovered more than $22m thus far. Recovery efforts are expected to be prolonged due to protests, appeals and refusal by current and retired soldiers.