A decade after the Army ended a recruiting program embroiled in accusations of fraud and mismanagement, more than 2,400 soldiers who were never charged with wrongdoing are likely shackled by a misleading flag on their criminal records.
We are branded as criminalsArmy Capt. Gilberto De Leon
“We are branded as criminals,” Army Capt. Gilberto De Leon told Fox News. “There was times where I broke down on my knees … My career ruined, about to lose my pension. How am I gonna support my family of eight?”
Soldiers and veterans say they’ve lost jobs, been denied bank loans or weapons permits, and suffered other consequences because of an obscure Army process that treats anyone who is merely investigated for wrongdoing as guilty.
“I did nothing wrong,” said South Carolina Army National Guard Capt. Benjamin Sternemann, who was several years into a career as a police officer when the flag popped up on his background check. “I was never arrested and never charged. And I lost my job anyway.”
The soldiers’ saga started in 2005, at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. military needed more bodies, so it started the National Guard Recruiting Assistance Program (G-RAP) and its smaller Army Reserve counterpart (AR-RAP).
The programs created thousands of temporary recruiters overnight, offering $2,000 for each person they steered toward the Guard.
“All they had to do was talk to somebody for a few minutes and submit their name so that an actual recruiter could get them in the door,” Sternemann said. If they shipped to basic training, the recruiting assistants got paid.
Sternemann said he referred three people and was paid $6,000 while attending the University of South Carolina around 2010. De Leon participated between 2007 and 2009, collecting $11,000 for six recruits.
“The programs, by all accounts, worked fantastic,” lawyer and retired Green Beret Doug O’Connell said.
The Army enlisted more than 150,000 new recruits and reported spending around $459.4 million on the programs.
But G-RAP came under scrutiny in 2012, and the Army ended the program. Federal investigators found the Army had contracted with a company called Docupak to run the programs in a process that met “almost none” of the federal acquisition requirements, USA Today reported. The National Guard Bureau officer who awarded the contract later went to work for Docupak.
An Army audit found “thousands … of participants who were associated with payments that are at high or medium risk for fraud,” Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri, said during a scathing 2014 hearing demanding answers from the Army.
“As if all that was not bad enough, the Army has determined in its investigation that the entire program was illegal from the beginning,” McCaskill said in the hearing, noting that the payments exceeded limits Congress had placed on bonuses the Army could pay. “All of the money spent on the program … was illegal.”
The Army vowed to investigate all 106,364 people paid by the recruiting program and launched Task Force Raptor, believed to be its biggest investigation in history.
Critics of the probes argue that the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division (CID) agents made sloppy cases against the recruiting assistants, accusing them of stealing personal information from recruits they had never met and collecting payment as if they had referred them to the Guard. Former recruiting assistants and their lawyers say CID cold-called troops as much as a decade after the fact and asked if they remembered who referred them to the guard.
“If they didn’t say the recruiting assistant’s name, the investigators assumed the recruiting assistant was guilty of criminal misconduct which is absolutely ridiculous,” said O’Connell, who has represented around 225 G-RAP participants in both civil and criminal cases. “In many cases that I’ve worked on, we’ve been able to prove the recruiting assistant didn’t do anything wrong once they were shown a picture of my client.”
Army leadership told Congress in 2014 that Task Force Raptor might uncover as much as $100 million in fraud. Three years later, the Army revised that estimate to $6 million, after spending around $28 million on the investigation.
As of 2022, Task Force Raptor resulted in just $478,002 repaid to the U.S. Treasury and $58,403 in fines and fees, according to Army data.
The Army referred 1,503 cases to civilian authorities. Prosecutors pursued charges in 137 of those cases.
“Most district attorneys would not touch these cases because they were so tainted with cookie cutter interrogations, phone interviews and poor documentation,” Sternemann said.
But thousands of soldiers who were never charged with a crime — and in many cases had no idea they’d been under investigation — became unexpected casualties of Task Force Raptor.
Sternemann was several years into a career as a police officer when he applied for a concealed weapon permit in 2018. He received a denial notice by mail and contacted licensing officials to ask why.
When he received a copy of his background check, he stared in shock at the single entry: “ARREST DATE 2016-03-02.”
Three charges followed: aggravated identity theft, wire fraud and fraud.
“I was never arrested, never charged,” he told Fox News. “I had no idea that this had occurred.”
During Task Force Raptor the Army “titled” 2,580 soldiers, according to the data shared with Fox News. Titling is a process within CID that creates a permanent record showing a soldier was the subject of an investigation regardless of whether they are ever charged with a crime.
Then the Army forwarded that information to the FBI’s criminal database where the titles show up as an arrest, O’Connell said.
“This is one of the most tragic parts of this entire debacle,” O’Connell said. “All these people who are simply titled … now have a criminal history that is wrong and illegal, because they’ve said that these soldiers and former soldiers were actually arrested or received into custody. And of course, they were never arrested.”
Fifty-three soldiers and veterans affiliated with G-RAP asked CID to remove the title from their record as of 2021. The Army denied every single request, according to data an adviser for a U.S. senator shared with Fox News on the condition of anonymity.
Army spokesman Matt Leonard said 10 more people asked the Army to remove their titles in Fiscal Year 2022.
“The soldiers and former soldiers who stood up and volunteered to serve and protect our Constitution are now being treated as criminals without any kind of due process rights,” O’Connell said.
The presence of what looks like a pending felony charge on Sternemann’s record meant he couldn’t renew his police credentials. His department fired him in 2019.
“There was nothing they could do,” he said. “They could no longer employ me because they had to have a credentialed law enforcement officer with a clean record.”
Many jobs and professional licenses require applicants to pass a background check. O’Connell says he’s represented real estate agents, physician assistants, police officers and other professionals who have had their lives upended by the titling system.
“These former soldiers that are now trying to get on with a different career are still having to deal with the horrors of G-RAP,” he said.
If a soldier is still in the Army, the title often makes it difficult — if not impossible — to promote.
De Leon should have donned the golden oak leaf pin of a major three years ago, but his promotion packet was flagged in 2019 for a fraud investigation linked to G-RAP. He jumped through endless bureaucratic hoops and even gained the support of six Republican congressmen who implored Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to intervene. But on April 1, De Leon’s promotion packet expired.
“It’s very sad. I saw myself as a lifer on active duty, retired 20 years, just like my father did,” he said. The father of six will leave the Army on Feb. 1, without a pension and knowing that the title on his record could hinder future employment opportunities.
Army CID revealed in July that it would review more than 880 Task Force Raptor investigations to determine whether soldiers were titled appropriately.
Fox News has repeatedly contacted Army CID since August asking for an update on the review. On Friday, a spokesman said in an email that a “comprehensive review of all investigations” related to the recruiting programs was ongoing but “CID cannot provide specific data on rates of review completion.”
Army CID officials would not comment on De Leon or Sternemann’s cases, citing privacy concerns, and declined to be interviewed for this story.
“I do not have a whole lot of hope for CID reviewing their own cases,” Sternemann said. “It feels a lot like a fox in the henhouse.”
O’Connell agreed, saying the cases deserve an independent review by “real, professional law enforcement.”
De Leon’s case was re-opened prior to the larger review, after a flurry of publicity surrounding his scuttled promotion. An agent interviewed De Leon in May, with his lawyer Jeffrey Addicott present.
In a recording of the CID interview De Leon shared with Fox News, Addicott can be heard asking the CID agent if he has experience with G-RAP cases.
“This is actually my first,” the agent replied.
Addicott and De Leon can be heard getting frustrated several times in the conversation with the agent’s apparent lack of knowledge of G-RAP, the titling system and its ramifications. The agent apparently requested that they explain G-RAP to him at the start of the conversation.
Toward the end of the interview, the agent can be heard saying, “Like I said, my first question, I had it written down in my notes—”
“’What the F is G-RAP?’” Addicott interjects.
“Please explain G-RAP to me,” the agent repeats, more diplomatically.
On July 6, Army CID closed the case while maintaining its original determination that probable cause existed that De Leon committed larceny, identity theft and wire fraud.
“In the CID report there is not a single mention of any GRAP rule that was allegedly violated by CPT DeLeon, only a vague fraud allegation,” Addicott told Fox News in an email. Addicott is a retired Army lieutenant colonel who has represented numerous former recruiting assistants in G-RAP cases.
Agents appear to have only interviewed one person during their review, whose name is redacted. That individual said De Leon did direct him to a recruiter.
Former National Guardsman Corey Thompson confirmed to Fox News that he was one of the six people De Leon referred to the National Guard between 2007 and 2009. Thompson said he remembers getting a “random” call from someone around 2014 asking about De Leon.
“I mentioned to them about him recruiting me to get into the guard,” Thompson said.
He forgot about it after that, and said CID never contacted him during its latest review. He had no idea what De Leon was going through until his college buddy reached out over the summer.
“He’s telling me people were saying that he stole my identity,” Thompson said. “That’s not factual … We went to Eastern Kentucky together. We ate food together. We had multiple drinks together. We know each other.”
Thompson described De Leon as a very motivated, enthusiastic person who made people like him look forward to joining the National Guard.
“To smear his name like this is just completely wrong,” he said.
As De Leon prepares to leave the Army, he says he’s furious at the lack of justice.
“Why does it seem like accountability stops at the Pentagon? There’s cowardice in our leadership,” he said. “Not one leader is electing to fight for the innocent soldiers.”
Addicott said it’s high time for congressional hearings into the CID “witch-hunts that have ruined the lives of hundreds of innocent soldiers over the years.”
Sternemann said CID’s actions have caused constant stress and anxiety for his whole family, all over $6,000 he received more than 10 years ago.
“I wish I hadn’t have helped them out,” Sternemann told Fox News. “I still love my country. I still love the South Carolina Army National Guard. But this isn’t worth it.”
He smiles bitterly at the irony of it all.
“This situation is showing that those of us in the military are not being afforded the rights that we were fighting for,” he said.