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How the L.A. Times got the story that soldiers were ordered to repay bonuses

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How the L.A. Times reporter David S. Cloud got the story that soldiers were ordered to repay bonuses.    

A decade ago, when the Pentagon was desperate for troops to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, the California National Guard enticed thousands of soldiers to enlist or re-enlist with bonuses of $15,000 or more.

The Pentagon began demanding repayment when audits revealed that many of the soldiers — even some who had been wounded in combat — were ineligible for the bonuses or were given the money in a fraudulent scheme by corrupt recruiters.

On Saturday, David S. Cloud, a reporter in the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times, broke the story. And on Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter ordered the Pentagon to suspend the repayment program.

Here’s how the story came together. Answers have been edited for length.

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How did you learn that the Pentagon was asking soldiers to repay the reenlistment bonuses?

David Cloud: A friend of former Army Sgt. Robert Richmond sent me an email and told me a little about [his situation]. Then I sent Robert an email, who said this was something I should look into.

I found other people who were in the same situation and it just built from there.

They told a similar story — that they signed up, they took this money because it was offered to them and then a decade later, they were told they owed all this money back.

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People were ready to tell their story; it was not hard to get them to open up. That’s different from a lot of stories where you have to convince people to talk.

People were ready to tell their story.

David S. Cloud

What struck you as the most powerful element of this story?

Cloud: The most powerful part of this were examples of people going to war or getting wounded [and then being told to repay their bonuses].

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Robert Richmond had already been in the Army for 20 years.

According to him, the National Guard came to him and said, “Sign up for six more years.” He knew at the time that if he did that he would be going to Iraq.

He spent the next year in combat and got wounded in a bomb attack. He comes home, gets out of the Guard eventually, and then gets this bill to repay his bonus. He was the first guy I talked to and in some ways, his story was the most powerful.

Did you face any obstacles while trying to report?

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Cloud: In the scheme of things, it wasn’t that hard of a story to report. It’s one of these stories that often tend to be good, sitting there in public view.

But nobody had ever written the story from the perspective of the soldiers who were shouldering the burden of paying that money back.

That is one of the reasons it’s had such an effect, I think. You had the sense that it was affecting a lot of people.

At what point did you know you had something?

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Cloud: I knew it was a story probably after the second interview. What I didn’t know is how much outrage it would get.

This was a case of people who were putting their lives on the line and having to repay the financial incentives to do that.

Did you get any pushback?

Cloud: The California National Guard initially, as I expected, tried to play down the story as old news. They dealt with the fact that there had been fraud and bonuses. They tried to dissuade me from doing the story.

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The other part of this, which has been very powerful, is the congressional part.

In the last few days, members of Congress refused to confirm that they had learned about this two years ago.

There was a fair amount of pushback and trying to evade responsibility.

Were you surprised by the response?

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Cloud: I had no anticipation that five days [after the report was published], the Defense secretary would issue a statement saying this would be corrected.

I’ve gotten hundreds and hundreds of emails and tweets from across the political spectrum.

It’s been a little astonishing how that whole span of readers have seen something in the story that’s outraged them.

colleen.shalby@latimes.com | @cshalby

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david.cloud@latimes.com | @davidcloudLAT

ALSO:

Defense secretary orders Pentagon to stop collecting California National Guard bonus repayments

Thousands of California soldiers forced to repay enlistment bonuses a decade after going to war

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Congress knew for at least two years about Pentagon efforts to take back bonuses from veterans


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