Veteran on Being Forced to Repay Bonus: ‘I Was Left Nearly Penniless’

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A veteran described having his credit attacked and being left "nearly penniless" by the ordeal of being ordered to repay a re-enlistment bonus during a CNN interview on Wednesday.

Army Special Forces Sergeant First Class Robert Richmond is one of thousands of other soldiers who the Pentagon says received bonuses in error and now owe the government back the money, with interest. Richmond got his re-enlistment bonus in 2006 and received a letter in 2014 demanding it back.

Richmond told CNN's New Day he thought he was the only person going through the ordeal at the time until he found out his situation was shared by thousands of others.

"At that point, I became an advocate for fighting it, because almost 10 years had gone by the time they started wanting to collect the amount due, and it didn't seem right," he said. "It didn't seem moral, and so I've advocated against it from the very beginning."

Richmond described a harrowing scenario in which he initially got $11,000 of his $15,000 bonus after taxes. He said he was then told he owed back the full amount "with penalties and interest," in addition to the Treasury Department tacking on another 28 percent.

"Now, four months after the collection started, I'm owing them $19,000, almost $20,000, for an error they claim that they made, when I signed a contract in good faith and fulfilled it," he said. "It has crippled my finances. They attacked my credit. I was self-employed at the time, between jobs … They crippled my credit right in the middle of the time that I used my cash to go into a business deal, and I was left nearly penniless with a family and a couple of kids, and I really struggled for a time to just get by."

CNN host Chris Cuomo expressed sympathy and later asked Richmond what he was told when he protested the repayment demand. Richmond said there were "multiple processes" to get an exemption, including one where he had to admit he received his bonus "erroneously."

"I've been at this process for two years," he said. "They're telling me I just have to wait one more year, and then they'll make a decision as to whether I can have this case resolved or not. In the meantime, within 30 days of my first collection letter, they ruined my credit with all three bureaus, and three months after that, the Treasury Department tacked on this interest, and is coming after me for my civilian wages."

Amid bipartisan anger over the scandal, the House Oversight Committee has demanded information about why the bonuses were improperly paid in the first place, and Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said the department will resolve the complex situation.

The White House said Tuesday that service members would not be held responsible for the "unethical conduct or fraud" perpetrated by others.

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