Government bills Arizona veteran for $14,000

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Ashely Christopher got sent a bill for her bonus that the government said she didn't deserve. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Ashely Christopher got sent a bill for her bonus that the government said she didn't deserve. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
Christopher is having to sell her home to pay the debt. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Christopher is having to sell her home to pay the debt. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)

Ashely Christopher had just started college, was volunteering at a horse ranch and an elementary school but had a calling to do even more.

So she joined the Arizona Army National Guard.

“I thought the ultimate volunteering would be to join the military,” said Christopher.

She joined a military police unit and became a weekend warrior, always knowing that active duty deployment could be on the horizon.

“I was well-aware joining the military, even in the weekend capacity, that they were needing soldiers. So, given orders, I said cool,” said Christopher.

She was deployed on two occasions. Once to Iraq, the second time to Afghanistan.

“I was proud to do it. I knew that it was a possibility, so, I had no hesitation to go,” said Christopher.

She fulfilled her first three-year initial National Guard commitment and then reenlisted for another six.

In February 2015, Christopher was honorably discharged. She used the VA housing loan to buy a home in Phoenix and she finished her college degree at ASU in social work.

Currently, Christopher is a full-time ASU graduate student in social work, and she works full-time with homeless veterans at the homeless shelter in downtown Phoenix.

“I love my job, I really do. A lot of people complain about their job and I enjoy my job. And even if I didn't work with homeless veterans I would still serve the community in some capacity. That's my calling as cheesy as it sounds,” said Christopher.   

In August of 2016, 18 months after she left the military, Christopher received a bill in the mail from the Department of Treasury for more than $14,000.

She inquired immediately.

“They said that I didn't fulfill my end of the contract in the military and so I was being charged for a prorated portion of my enlistment bonus that I got when I reenlisted into the National Guard for six more years,” said Christopher.

That reenlistment came with a $15,000 signing bonus, tax-free for six years.

About a year and a half after that reenlistment, Christopher said she got a call from a readiness non-commission officer who said that because of her military test scores and her security clearance, she was needed for a deployment to Afghanistan. A deployment, she was told, was 125 soldiers short. So, like a good soldier, Christopher complied.

“I'm a soldier. I go where I'm needed,” she said.

But she was hesitant, not because of the deployment, but because it meant being transferred to a unit out of Las Vegas and being retrained. Christopher said she specifically inquired if her transfer would affect her bonus.

“I thought about it and I questioned it. And I was informed by the retention NCOs and all the NCOs that this is for combat purposes, national security. This is a deployment. It's the needs of the Army. So the bonus at that point is irrelevant, you know, there's a war to fight,” said Christopher.

She said she was not the only soldier for that deployment that was asked to transfer units and not the only one to inquire about the bonuses. She said she asked repeatedly and repeatedly was told that the needs of the Army dictated the transfer and that she was all good. 

So, when she got the bill, Christopher was stunned.

“I just feel like I've done everything that you're supposed to do when you transition back to civilian life. And I was on a really good track and this has just come out of nowhere and just disrupted that,” said Christopher.  

The Department of Treasury informed Christopher that they would garnish up to 15 percent of her wages each paycheck and take her taxes until her debt was paid off.

“The payment plan option was to pay $396 a month for 36 months, I believe. And they wouldn't take a lesser amount. I called them and said can I send you a hundred bucks? And they weren't flexible with that. Even after I told them that I was a student. They weren't too concerned with that,” said Christopher.

Christopher said her credit score went from 742 to 605 in two weeks. Her house is on the market and she’s packing to move out to get the cash to pay the debt. At the same time, she has filed papers to dispute the debt and has contacted three of Arizona’s congressional leaders as well as the Office of the Inspector General. So far, everyone has only been able to confirm that her debt is valid, at the same time acknowledging it may not be fair.

She is concerned about other soldiers who may be in the same position.

“I don't have high expectations from the government. But I would like there to be some clear definitions or greater acknowledgment with handling of money in the future. So that if the debt is valid, they say, 'Hey, we need you to do this mission but it's going to cost you this amount of money. Do you still want to go?' Selfless service with a price tag,” said Christopher.     

Just recently Christopher received a letter from the Department of Treasury after filing her federal income taxes and knowing she was owed a refund.

The letter stated:

“As authorized by federal law we applied all or part of your federal payment to a debt you owe.”

Christopher would never see a penny of the $800 plus Christopher was to receive.

“I knew that I had a refund coming a little bit and then I also knew that there was a chance they could take a percentage of it. I didn't think they would take 100 percent but they did,” said Christopher.

A public relations spokesman with the Arizona National Guard said they are not the ones who initiated the action against Christopher.

Attempts to reach someone in the Nevada Nation Guard have gone unanswered.

U.S. Representative Ruben Gallegos’ office did put Christopher in touch with the Office of the Inspector General. 

Christopher said they have been helpful and responsive so far. But the debt remains and she expects her wages to be garnished any time. 

Copyright 2017 KPHO/KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.

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Donna RossiEmmy Award-winning reporter Donna Rossi joined CBS 5 News in September 1994.

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Donna Rossi

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