By CNN’s Kait Richmond and Marisa Russell
(CNN) — Robert Richmond dedicated 15 years to serving his country.
Part of that time was rewarded with a $15,000 bonus, promised to him if he agreed to re-enlist and complete another six years of service.
In November 2006 Richmond received the money. He honorably retired from the military in 2012, and two years later — nearly a decade after he got the bonus — he received a letter demanding he repay it.
“I was left nearly penniless,” the father of two told CNN’s Chris Cuomo on “New Day” on Wednesday.
Thousands forced to repay
Richmond is not alone — thousands of other veterans were forced to repay millions of dollars in re-enlistment bonuses after the California National Guard awarded them in error. When officials realized their mistake, they wanted their money back — with interest.
Veterans have been paying back these bonuses for the last few years, but it’s only recently made headlines. After several days of criticism, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Wednesday he is suspending “all efforts to collect reimbursement.”
Carter said the suspension will continue until he is “satisfied that our process is working effectively.”
“There is no more important responsibility for the Department of Defense than keeping faith with our people,” Carter added in his statement. “While some soldiers knew or should have known they were ineligible for benefits they were claiming, many others did not.”
This is welcome news to veterans like Richmond, who owed almost $20,000 within four months of receiving that first letter.
‘Crippled my finances’
While adjusting to civilian life, he was self-employed, pursuing a business deal to get back on his feet. It was working out because he had such good credit, until he got that letter.
“It has crippled my finances,” he said.
Richmond has been fighting the demands for two years, and said that he was told he has to wait another year for a decision.
“In the meantime, within 30 days of my first collection letter, they ruined my credit with all three bureaus,” he explained. “Three months after that, the Treasury Department tacked on this interest, and is coming for me and my civilian wages.”
Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, told Cuomo something needs to be done.
“Everybody across America is outraged and these folks need to have their situation fixed,” Rieckhoff said.
The IAVA started a petition calling on Washington to take action and pay the veterans back.
“Join us in calling on the Administration and Congress to find a fix before Veterans Day, November 11, 2016 to stop Uncle Sam’s collections immediately and #PayThemBack,” the petition reads.
Richmond is now an advocate for his fellow veterans who are struggling to pay back their bonuses.
“It didn’t seem moral,” he said.