Thursday, November 22, 2007

Why Do Honorable Veterans Have To Pay Back Bonuses?

Recent news reports have been talking about how Iraq veterans were being asked to pay back enlistment bonuses after being forced out of the military due to injuries. Officials in the Pentagon have said that they will resolve this issue, but the fact that this problem has come up really didn't surprise me too much, as I have a similar story. I thought it horrible what happened to them, but not too surprised.

After I got out of high school, my parents were telling me that they didn't have enough money to send me to USC. Nevermind that with financial aid it would cost the same as the state school that they would have preferred I went to, but that's another story. As a result, I ended up joining the Navy Reserves.

The Navy Reserves has a Reserve GI Bill program, where if you are a drilling reservist attending college, you get a small amount of money per month. This program doesn't give you as much money as the Montgomery GI Bill that is more popular, but I also did not have to pay into it. The only attachment to accepting this money was that I remained a drilling reservist for 6 years.

That would have been all fine and good, until I decided that I kinda liked the reserves, and I didn't care too much for the starving student routine. That fall, I decided to join the Navy ROTC program. That did not pose a problem. I was a midshipmen Mondays through Fridays, and on one weekend a month, a was an Aviation Structural Mechanic Airman, drilling at Seal Beach Weapons station. It worked out fine...

Until I received a scholarship from the Navy ROTC program. You see, there's a law that says that you can not receive money from more than one government source. I'm not sure how that works, but I do know that it would have been illegal for me to continue to receive drill pay AND receive my scholarship. So I had to stop drilling. I was still serving the military, there should have been no problem, right?

Not exactly. Nobody really communicated with each other. The reservist branch of the military didn't really know how to deal with me, and even though I sent them letters and paperwork regarding my status with the military, they decided to transfer me into the Internal Ready Reserve (IRR, non-drilling status). I don't think that there are too many cases of drilling reservists joining ROTC and getting a scholarship as a midshipman. Almost every other former enlisted person that I know that went the officer route went through Boost, or the Warrant Officer program, or applied while on Active Duty. I was a fairly unique case.

Remember the agreement that I had to serve 6 years as a drilling reservist because I had received the Reserve GI Bill? I was only able to drill for about 2 of those years before I received my scholarship and was not able to drill. You think that the military would have been happy that I had chosen to serve my country in a greater capacity, and not just limit my time to one weekend a month. It didn't work out quite that way.

I started receiving letters asking for the money back. I had a collections officer call me asking for money... paying them back was not really an option since I was disputing the money for one thing, and secondly, I was living off the $3000 a semester I got from another scholarship I had earned at the time. So I argued with the collections officer a little saying that I was disputing their right to take the money, and I think that was the last I heard of that. Only it ended up on my credit report.

Time went on, and I received my commission as an officer in the United States Navy. The funny thing is... the reserves had never discharged me from the IRR. So at one point I was an Ensign in the active duty Navy, while at the same time I was also an Aviation Structural Mechanic 3rd Class (I passed the promotion exam and got a promotion, evidently) in the Navy Reserves. My parents ended up getting some letters addressed to AMS3 me while I was an Ensign... funny.

It was funny until the day I was on deployment in the Caribbean and my husband tells me that I ended up getting paid $300 for one of my paychecks (normally they were over $1000). He had to go to Navy Relief to pay the rent that month. Anyway, the Navy Reserves thought that they were pretty smart, finding out that I was employed by the Navy, they could seize my money that they wanted from when I received Navy GI Bill money. Only they couldn't put 2 and 2 together and realize that since I was in the military... maybe I was meeting my obligations? No, they couldn't figure out that.

I had been arguing with the Navy Reserves for approximately 4 years about this problem. I would send a letter to them asking why they thought that I owed this money, they would send back a form letter saying that I didn't fulfill my obligations and had to pay back the money. I would send a letter back asking pointedly whether they thought that I didn't fulfill my obligations because I transferred to ROTC, or because I just didn't drill... they sent me back another form letter saying the same thing, that didn't answer my question.

I ended up writing my congressman, Duncan Hunter, for help. He just happened to be the chairman of the Armed Forces Service Committee (very convenient to have the chairman come from the San Diego district). While I don't think I ever voted for him before, he got me my money back, AND got the whole mess off my credit report. One credit reporting agency ended up not taking it off, but I sent a copy of my congressman's letter and it came off right away after that. So I guess you could say that it literally took an act of congress to get this straightened out. I've been a loyal Duncan Hunter supporter ever since, even though I don't live in his district any more... he has my eternal gratitude.

The story has an even better ending than that. After I got the letter from my congressman, I learned that I could get credit towards my pay for my reservist time... the longer you have been in the military, the more you get paid. I was able to get the Navy Reserves to finally discharge me, and for pay purposes, I ended up with 5 years of military service added to my time in service. My pay went up probably around $1000 a month. And not only that, but I had been underpaid for more than a year of active duty miltary service... KA CHING!!! The military owed me around $10,000, but they took out a huge chunk for taxes. Still, it was a very nice payday.

So I can sympathize with these wounded veterans who have been asked to pay back part of their bonuses. I'm glad that this is getting national attention and it will be taken care of. The last thing that I think our country should do is penalize soldiers for getting wounded on the battlefield. We should be bending over backwards to take care of them.

The military needs to consolidate their databases so they know who is where and with what branch. They need to get some common sense in their policies as well... if you are discharged from the military because you are wounded, or if you go from drilling reservist status to midshipman status... you shouldn't be treated like a scumbag who failed to fulfill your duties. I don't know how they made these wounded soldiers feel, but I know that that's how I felt for quite some time, even though I was doing the best that I could. A little bit of communication and a little bit of common sense could go very far, and avoid more disasters like these.

No comments: