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Christopher Van Meter, a 42-year-old former army captain and Iraq veteran, says that he refinanced his home to pay $46,000 in bonus money and student loans which the army said he never should have received.

“These bonuses were used to keep people in,” Van Meter told the paper. “People like me just got screwed.”

In the mid-2000s, as wars continued in Afghanistan and Iraq, military officials throughout the US felt pressure to boost enrollment. At the peak of the simultaneous offensives, generous enlistment bonuses were one of the ways officials tried to solve the problem.

Overpayments occurred in every state during this period, according to the National Guard Bureau, the Pentagon agency that oversees state guard organizations. But payments were especially unwieldy in California, which is home to the country’s second-largest state guard.

In 2012, a former bonus and incentive manager for the California national guard, retired master sergeant Toni Jaffe, was jailed for 30 months for filing false claims.

In her guilty plea, the US attorney’s office for the central district of California said, Jaffe “admitted that she submitted claims to pay bonuses to members of the California national guard whom she knew were not eligible to receive the bonuses and to pay off officer’s loans, even though she knew the officers were ineligible for loan repayment”.

Rather than forgive the loans, the California state government embarked on an audit of more than 17,000 soldiers who received a combined 25,000 disbursements worth about $100m.

The audit process concluded last month, with roughly 9,700 current and retired soldiers having been told to repay some or all of their bonuses. The state has recovered more than $22m so far, the LA Times reported, but collections are likely to continue for several years.

In a class action suit filed in February, one of the affected guardsmen calls the affected soldiers “victims of one of the most egregious mass frauds in US military history”.

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The plaintiff, Bryan Strother, alleges that the payments were laid out in binding contracts and that the statute of limitations for the state has long passed.

Strother has asked for all the money collected to be paid back, and for an injunction against the state collecting any more. The case is in federal court and a ruling is expected in January.

Even state guard officials acknowledge that the attempt to collect was unfair.

“At the end of the day, the soldiers ended up paying the largest price,” Maj Gen Matthew Beevers, deputy commander of the California guard, told the 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.”

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