By Glenn Kahl
It was a celebration of sorts Monday morning at the Manteca Veterans Center.California National Guard Commander Major General David Baldwin — along with Congressman Jeff Denham who fought for the return of re-enlistment bonuses for military personnel state-wide who had served in battle — where on hand at the Moffat Boulevard Veterans of Foreign Wars Post to update veterans on their efforts to make those who have served America whole.
Chris Van Meter, formerly of Manteca, and Dan Jones of Escalon had been offered a combined total of $103,000 to stay in the service at the end of their enlistment. Both of them — like others across the state — were forced to return the money years later after the Pentagon determined re-enlistment personnel awarding the bonuses were unauthorized to do so.
Both men had no other choice but to sell their home or take out second mortgages to repay bonuses awarded them under the California National Guard Incentive Program. They were among 17,000 cases that were reviewed.
Most of the California soldiers were repaid their bonuses and student loans they had earned in good faith. Today, despite many hardships that veterans incurred as a result of the initial claw back, General Baldwin and Representative Denham were able to reflect on the favorable resolution of those cases.
Van Meter and Jones both credited Congressman Denham for helping them recover the bonus money that repaying had pushed them toward bankruptcy. Both are married with young children. Jones had been a first responder with the Stockton Fire Department. He earned his Chief Warrant Officer wings in the service via helicopter pilot’s training at Ft. Rucker, Alabama and the opportunity to fly helicopters such as the Blackhawk and Chinooks. Jones first served as a medic in the Guard.
“The bureaucracy should never supersede the soldiers in the battlefield or veterans returning home,” Denham said. “The CalGuard’s pay issue should have never taken so long to resolve. With a redefined mission and fraud in the system, the Department of Defense should have recognized and expedited all pay disputes.” General Baldwin offered an update on the “Work for Warriors” program, a state and federal partnership, which Denham has supported in Congress. This program helps veterans find employment and has helped thousands of California veterans get jobs by connecting with over 350 business partners throughout the state. Dating back to 2006, certain California National Guard employees had enticed thousands of soldiers to reenlist using the fraudulent bonuses to help meet recruitment goals. Those who accepted the bonuses were unaware that was the case until the Pentagon began demanding the money be returned.
Jones sought the assistance of Congressman Denham in 2016 after receiving notification – as had Van Meter – learning earlier he was responsible for the repayment of the bonuses he had received for the period from 2004 to 2010.
The two men had followed “appropriate steps” and at the suggestions of other authorities to obtain exemptions and waivers but were unsuccessful. They also received collection debt notices with instructions that could possibly stop the recoupment of the funds. They both learned they were considered to be responsible for the bonuses the Guard had authorized.
They were not “eligible” for the bonuses due to the criminal actions of others. Jones was given 30 days to pay back over $20,000 of the total. After his meetings first with Van Meter, Denham met again with Jones in October of 2016 – in February of 2017, Jones and the congressman received written notification there would be no recoupment for the 2004 to 2010 period. He said he had volunteered that he had been overpaid numerous times but the Army said just to hang onto it and someone will probably contact you – but they never did, he said, until many years later.
His wife Cindy has the rank of Captain in the National Guard and was just deployed as the leader of a Chinook helicopter squadron bound for the Far East having leaving their two small children at home for a year. The recoupment had also been forgiven for Van Meter but it is still seen as a very personal issue with soldiers coming back from battle and receiving letters, even today, saying they have to repay their bonuses to the government, Denham said.
General Baldwin recalled, “When we were first faced with this, we didn’t have the authority to change it. The Army paid out tens of thousands of dollars and when they want their money back, they want it now.”Van Meter and his wife had just moved to Manteca when they learned they would have to repay a $46,000 bonus to the Army. They had two small boys and the news of the recoupment forced him into retirement from the military. It was just too much to bear, he said.
The Guardsmen said they got calls on the telephone with the greeting, “Hi I’m Jeff Denham. Let us help you resolve this situation.”