The Silent Campaign by the US Government to Brand American Soldiers as Criminals

06/05/2015 05:20 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2016

Co-authored with Liz Ullman

The violence inflicted on US soldiers is not always confined to a remote battlefield in a distant land from armed insurgents. Only recently has it become known that veteran's are dying right here at home as they await medical care from the VA healthcare system that has shamefully demonstrated the wonton disregard of their well-being. And now the nation's heroes and heroines are silently fighting a battle for their constitutional rights and freedom as they seek to defend themselves against outright persecution in the Army's largest fraud investigation. In another example of the miscarriage of justice leveled against those who so valiantly served this country, the Army backed by the Armed Services Committee has sought to regain hundreds of thousands of lost dollars from a mismanaged program by going after innocent soldiers.

In 2006, the US was engaged in two military conflicts in the Middle East and needed to build up its coffers of reserve forces to meet the demand for bodies and boots on the ground. A contract was awarded to an Alabama printing and document packaging company, Docupak, for $500 million to promote, manage, administer and monitor a recruiting assistance program for the military. Several branches of service eventually participated in the program, but the National Guard Bureau (NGB) was the original "test pilot" and would receive the largest bulk of federal contracting dollars. This program was known as the Guard Recruiting Assistance Program or (G-RAP). The Army National Guard, like all military branches, has full-time trained recruiters utilized to meet mission strength. G-RAP, however, was designed to provide additional support to help build up the labor pool during a time of lengthy deployments. Though anyone could technically participate in the Recruiting Assistance Program, the government recognized an untapped resource in part-time soldiers and retirees that had a wealth of knowledge to help "hook" the potential soldier while the full-time recruiters used their training and expertise to then "reel in" the candidate for commitment. (As the program expanded, AGR soldiers of full-time non-recruiter status would be able to participate as well.) The program would monetize the efforts at homegrown recruiting by offering financial incentive to "independent contractors" to act as recruiting assistants (RAs). Encouraged by their command to serve as ambassadors, dedicated soldiers participating in G-RAP were told that their involvement was vital and would help bring more bodies to the war fight. And it worked. For six years, G-RAP was heralded as a great success story, having brought some 130,000 new recruits into the armed forces (accounting for 40% of all Guard recruitments during this time period). But by 2012, the NGB had come under intense scrutiny for gross mismanagement of the G-RAP, receiving their most scathing audit yet by the U.S. Army Audit Agency Facing serious allegations, Docupak along with responsible parties at top levels of the Army searched for and found a scapegoat to recoup the millions of dollars spent on government malfeasance. The scapegoat turned out to be the American soldier.

Working to swell the ranks with a steady stream of eager and patriotic Americans willing to serve, RAs were expected to work directly with full-time recruiters in generating and producing viable leads and cultivating relationships with potential enlistees from any number of places. Under the general program guidelines, RAs could recruit from among their friends, family members, acquaintances and anyone they encountered who expressed interest in military service. The term Docupak used was "sphere of influence." For each nominee theoretically validated by Docupak and subsequently enlisted in the Guard, the RA would be awarded a $2,000 incentive payment. But without sufficient management and guidance to follow, the vagueness of this "sphere of influence" language was all the RA had to ascertain when functioning in their role. The program's expectations were embodied within a relatively short one-time online training. The two major restrictions in the G-RAP program were, 1) RAs receiving bonuses for recruits that had signed up without their direct consent and 2) any exchange of currencies between the RA and full-time recruiter or new soldiers. After this brief training, RAs were approved by Docupak to assist in the recruiting process under an ambiguous set of program directives. Though the G-RAP guidelines went through a series of updates over time, there were no additional formal trainings or other widely disseminated communication by officials charged with overseeing the program. And yet unexpectedly, many RAs eventually found themselves under federal indictment and charged with criminal fraud, a felony conviction if found guilty, for participating in a faulty incentive program unbeknownst to them.

The Army Audit Agency released a report showing just how deficient the program was. The findings were shocking and comprised a host of concerns such as limited management controls at all levels throughout the NGB, a lack of oversight of the contractor and, among all else, a contract that broke a number of federal purchasing regulations to include the Anti-deficiency Act. It also pointed out an organizational conflict of interest when Lieutenant Colonel Kay Hensen, who signed the contract with Docupak on behalf of the Guard, then accepted an executive position at Docupak. The Army Audit concluded that there was a breakdown in "sound business processes and neither statutory, regulatory or policy requirements were followed."

There were certainly isolated incidences in which RAs and recruiters involved with RAP (Recruiting Assistant Program) knowingly and willingly took advantage of the situation and broke clear guidelines to scam the system. Some opened secret bank accounts to funnel money while others shared the bounty between RA and full-time recruiters. In fact, initial findings by Army auditors in 2011 found 3,200 recruiters and RAs associated with medium to high-risk fraud. Due to these reports, all RAPs were terminated. But rather than accept responsibility for ineffective command and for mismanagement of a contract worth a half a billion dollars, military brass redirected this uncomfortable inquiry to the rank-in-file soldiers, the very individuals they solicited to assist with bringing additional troops to the war fight.

At the behest of the Secretary of the Army's demands, the Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID) was encouraged to flood the landscape with over 200 untrained investigators to further scrutinize all 106,364 individuals involved with RAP for any possibility (remote or not) of fraud. But fraud is a specific intent crime. In other words, conviction relies on the government's ability prove the individual knew of the specific rules and intentionally broke them for financial gain. CID's ensuing report prepared for the February 2014 Senate Subcommittee hearing declared that it found over 22,000 soldiers associated with payments that were at medium to high risk for fraud. This number is seven times greater than the original estimation and frankly implausible. For example, the FBI estimates that insurance fraud--one of the highest areas of proven fraud--is at a rate of 3-10% of all insurance cases. The initial Army Audit also estimated RAP fraud at a rate of 3%. Yet, CID is now suggesting that some of the most honorable and valiant men and women serve this country are felons are a rate of over 20%, 2 to 7 times that of the typical population. Put differently, 1 in 5 soldiers are alleged criminals. Why members of Congress chose to believe such inane figures is not fully understood, but it appears that sacrificing their own troops was easier than explaining how hundreds of millions of dollars had been squandered.

The primary document now used for prosecuting Guard soldiers is an un-sourced and undated set of G-RAP rules that are radically altered from the original rules most RAs encountered when participating in G-RAP between 2005 and 2007. Today, all that we know about the existence of Docupak's rules are what is available online, gathered by civilians in a grassroots effort to bring awareness to the problems inherent in the investigations. CID has been unable to produce a computer record in the RAs' digital files where they acknowledged, agreed to and/or were quizzed on particular updates. Importantly, there are a few subtle yet key differences in the later rules. In one key change, RAs were suddenly and quietly forbidden from interfacing directly with full-time recruiters regarding potential enlistees. The other significant change is the requirement to meet the recruit face-to-face where phone contact and Internet exchange were initially permissible. Though this may seem to reflect only a nominal difference from the original set of rules, the change was drastic when it came to investigating allegations of fraud and recovering taxpayer dollars. Instituting these seemingly minor but core modifications to the program without clearly educating all soldiers has led to the continuing harassment of many honest and law-abiding American citizens. Soldiers and retirees who set off following the rules they were given at the inception of G-RAP have been criminalized, many charged with felony theft, wire fraud and/or identity theft despite a glaring portion of information missing in the prosecutions' cases to effectively establish--intent.

A memo addressed to full-time recruiters appears to corroborate the rule change, stating that recruiters and RAs were to no longer share personal information of a G-RAP nominee, but the date contradicts the rule updates. Interestingly, this memo produced by NGB was dated 4 May, 2010, a full two and a half years after the updates were purportedly disseminated to all RAs. It stands to reason that these two groups working intimately together would be made aware of changes to the rules within a relatively close timeframe to one another. Thousands of RAs acting within this time gap are caught in the system, reporting no knowledge of G-RAP rule updates. Many of these soldiers have watched their lives fall apart as a result of this unjust action. Merely being investigated by Army CID has resulted in revocation of military security clearances, letters of reprimand from command, assignment postponement and federal debarment prohibiting the possibility of work with any future government contract. A felony indictment, even if later found to be groundless, often results in loss of reputation and honor and even a loss of future employment opportunities. Mounting a legal defense is costly, starting at around $25,000 for representation alone and costing upwards of $50,000 to $75,000 if the case goes to trial. Many soldiers who cannot afford these costs are pleading guilty to lesser charges on advice of their public counsel unfamiliar with G-RAP.

Fraud did occur, but not nearly at the magnitude that the G-RAP investigations would suggest. Most of those involved in clear instances of fraudulent activity have been identified--some pleading guilty while others eluded conviction due to a five-year statute of limitations. But the federal government has not been satisfied with that level of justice; they intend to extract its "pound of flesh" from this failed incentive program, and they intend to do so by waging a silent war against innocent and vulnerable soldiers who tried in earnest to follow the rules as best they knew how. As one non-commissioned officer cleared of any wrongdoing stated, "What is the likelihood of thousands of individuals who swore to defend this country and its people would intentionally defraud the government and potentially ruin their life for a few thousand dollars?" The probability is low. The more reasonable explanation, corroborated by the latest Army Audit, is that the rules were woefully inadequate to start. So where is Docupak's accountability and recourse? Where is the military's accountability? As American soldiers face threats to their lives, dignity, respect and honor right here at home from the very government they swore to protect and defend, it is time to stop the prosecution of those who are innocent.