I had to write a post about this, because it is just SO MESSED UP.
The bonuses were paid in error. The recruiting officers probably knew the soldiers they were signing up were not entitled to the bonuses. There doesn't seem to be any reason to think the soldiers knew that. I mean, if Human Resources at your company offered you a $20,000 bonus to relocate to a war-torn country for a minimum of 2 years, would you say "I dunno, did the Board of Directors authorize that bonus? Are you allowed to do that? I better check this out." Or would you figure that HR knows their job and it's not a ridiculous incentive to offer for hazardous duty? Because I'd go with the latter myself.
Honestly, this situation reminds me of Wells Fargo. Wells Fargo, like the military, placed ridiculous pressure on its employees to perform and get people to sign up. Like Wells Fargo, this resulted in employees engaging in fraudulent practices.
Except that when Wells Fargo's fraud was discovered, Wells Fargo got fined.
Whereas the government's reaction to the military recruiter fraud is like if the court had ordered Wells Fargo's customers pay millions in fines to Wells Fargo.
"Goodness me, should we review our practices to see if we've designed our incentives to recruiters badly? Should we check to see if our recruitment targets are unrealistic? Could we have done anything that might make recruiters feel like they had a choice between losing their career or committing fraud? HEAVENS NO it must be the fault of the recruited BRING THE HAMMER DOWN."
You know, about 3 years ago, my electric company had stopped charging me for electricity usage. They billed me only $10 a month for the connection. I called to report the issue, and they said, "we know there's a billing problem. We're working on it."
Two years passed where they charged me only $10 per month.
Finally, they got it sorted out. I got a bill that said I'd used $3000 or so in electricity over the last two years, and I owed $100 or so for the last month and the rest was waived.
Because that is what a normal company does when they make an error in your favor. They eat the cost. They do not tell you 10 years later "oops, our bad, pay us back. And oh hey you owe interest on our mistake too!" No one does that. And if they did do that, no court would enforce it.
Unless you're the Pentagon, anyway, in which case you whine about how you are somehow legally obligated to make collection eforts and there is no possible way you could've, I don't know, asked Congress to change the bloody stupid law first instead? Told a court the law was garbage in what it specified for this instance and would they please stay it while we get this sorted? Done literally anything other than sic collection agencies on soldiers who had never signed a loan agreement?
Anyway, there're at least a couple of Congress members who've spoken out against it and pledged to try to rectify it. As mentioned above, there's a whitehouse.gov petition to request presidential help for the soldiers being forced to repay bonuses. This is one of the rare instances where a petition has a real chance of doing some good: it is a 100% government-created problem, and the President is Commander-in-Chief of the military. So I encourage you to sign it.