SAN ANTONIO — Christopher Castro first came into the spotlight during the 2003 Iraq invasion, when he helped rescue seven prisoners of war in a daring raid.
But that moment, captured in a dramatic photo, faded after a hero's homecoming at San Antonio International Airport.
A few years later, Castro and a small band of soldiers were plotting to skim cash from a Pentagon recruiting program that auditors say was ripe for fraud.
The GIs claimed to sign up recruits under the program, which paid bonuses to troops who got civilians to join the Army National Guard. Castro and 11 others led by former Spc. Xavier Aves didn't recruit anyone but took $244,000 in fraudulent bonus referral payments, according to federal court records.
The Recruiter Assistance Program began in 2005 and successfully bolstered sagging National Guard recruitment during the worst years of the Iraq War. The program worked so well that the Army and the Reserve adopted it, using bonus paychecks to encourage everyday soldiers to become military recruiters in their spare time.
If a prospective recruit signed a Guard contract, the “recruiting assistants” earned $2,000 to $7,500. The assistants could be guardsmen not on active duty, retirees, their family members or civilians hired as subcontractors. Recruiters were barred from receiving bonus payments.
But the Army said the program was riddled with fraud, and it was canceled in 2012. At least $29 million in fraudulent payments were made to more than 1,200 people. U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who blasted the Army over the program at a Senate hearing last week, said the figure could climb to $100 million.
The Army says 368 recruiters have been taken to court or forced into disciplinary proceedings, with 84 of them from Texas, the most of any state. An additional 851 recruiting assistants are under investigation, with one in every four coming from California and Texas.
Most of those charged in Texas come from the Houston and San Antonio areas. Nineteen have pleaded guilty, including Castro and his co-conspirators.
Castro served a year in a federal prison and is now in a San Antonio halfway house. He couldn't be reached for comment.
Rise and fall
Castro joined the Marines in 1999 after graduating from Burbank High School. A lance corporal in the 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, he served as chief scout with his platoon during the March 2003 invasion and learned that a group of U.S. POWs were held in Samarra, north of Baghdad.
Based on a tip, they approached a building where the hostages were held and took fire. They were preparing to withdraw when they heard a voice inside.
It was Chief Warrant Officer Dave Williams, an Apache attack helicopter pilot. A photo of the rescue showed him clinging to Castro as a group of Marines led the Americans to safety.
“I didn't want to let go of Castro because he was the first guy to come in and put his back to me to provide security for me because I wasn't wearing ballistic protection,” said Williams, who was shot down early in the invasion.
“And as emotional as I was because I was given a second chance at life, he looked at me, and I was expressing my gratitude, and he said, 'Sir, it's all over, you're going home,'” he continued. “So to hear this news (of the recruiting fraud) is a shock because that is not the Castro that I know.”
Five of the seven POWs rescued by the Marines had been captured with Pfc. Jessica Lynch at the beginning of the war. Lynch was rescued a couple weeks earlier in a commando operation at an Iraqi hospital.
After the war, Castro spent a year in the Marine Corps Reserve, and he later served in the Texas Army National Guard and the Army Reserve.
In 2011, federal prosecutors accused him of wire fraud and identity theft. They say that Aves, the recruiter, would give Castro the Social Security numbers of civilians hoping to become soldiers. Castro logged the information into his recruiter assistant account and claimed that he had helped recruit the new soldiers into the Guard or Reserve.
The government paid him $26,000. Castro then split the money with Aves. Federal prosecutors, in a sentencing document, said Castro also admitted to selling the personal information of multiple recruits in exchange for $1,500 cash.
The Army has said there is no evidence of a widespread conspiracy to defraud the government, but similar schemes were crafted around the country between small groups of recruiters and soldiers who claimed to be recruiting assistants.
Aves led a group that included Castro, former Staff Sgt. Grant E. Bibb, Sgt. 1st Class Jesus Torres-Alvarez, Spc. Paul Escobar, Spc. Richard Garcia and Sgt. Ernest Gonzales.
Recruiting effort starts
The idea of paying bonuses to everyday soldiers as an incentive to recruit troops had never been done before, but Guard leaders saw an advantage in it. Rather than relying on a small recruiting group that didn't have the active-duty Army's financial clout, the Guard would encourage its entire force to do word-of-mouth recruiting.
In 2005, the Guard awarded a lucrative contract to Document and Packaging Inc. to manage the bonus program. G-RAP, as it was called, went online in 2006. A new, one-year contract was awarded in 2007, with four option years.
That deal was worth a maximum of $472 million, with the company granting bonuses of $2,000 to $7,500, depending on the recruit's job specialty. Docupak, as the company is called, netted a $345 processing fee for each new recruit, according to an Army audit.
In addition to recruiting in schools, the Guard reached out to young adults, running film trailers in theaters that showed its troops at home and abroad, and began sponsoring NASCAR race drivers.
“These were all methods of reaching the target audience that hadn't been done,” said John Goheen, a spokesman for National Guard Association of the United States.
“The traditional method of recruiting wasn't working. If something isn't working out, try bolder approaches,” he added. “The results were record numbers of high-quality recruits.”
The approach worked so well that other services started similar programs.
The Army Reserve set up its program in 2007. It was identical to the Guard program with just one exception: Bonuses were limited to $2,000. The active-duty Army set up its effort in 2008, also paying $2,000 bonuses and a $330 fee to Docupak.
That program paid $6.75 million and, like the Guard and Reserve RAPs, was the target of fraud. A 2013 Army audit found 13 recruiters were suspected of fraudulent payouts, 19 were thought to have been linked with “suspicious” recruiter assistant payments and 28 others violated program rules.
The Army's struggles to sign up enough new active-duty and reserve-component soldiers eased by 2009, when it got more recruits than needed. The Reserve had problems in 2012, but only because prospects were looking for full-time jobs, the Army Recruiting Command said.
Docupak, meanwhile, netted $434,545 in overpayments in the active-duty program. The Army said it not only got that money back, but also recouped $486,682 in overpayments for the Army Reserve program.
The Army ultimately deemed the program illegal, with a total of $386 million of payments in question.
The Texas Guard's top commander, Maj. Gen. John Nichols said his organization would “continue to cooperate with investigators and the (Justice Department) on any ongoing investigations.”
What happened to Castro stuns and mystifies his aunt Zulema Leal and Williams, the attack helicopter pilot.
Released from a federal penitentiary in Bastrop to the San Antonio halfway house, he was recently in a Walmart and lost track of his father.
“He looked OK, but his dad said he had like an anxiety attack,” said Leal, who had greeted Castro with a picture of the rescue when he returned home a hero in 2003.
“To me, he's still a hero,” said Leal, of San Antonio. “What he did back then, I don't know, maybe he needed money.”
Now retired from the Army, Williams, 41, of El Paso remembers every Marine who was in on the rescue. He hasn't forgotten that the mission was so dicey that the commander asked for volunteers.
Lance Cpl. Christopher Castro stepped forward.
“Somehow, he got mixed up in doing something, I don't know the particulars of the case, but that doesn't really define him,” Williams said. “His defining moment was how he fought in combat and how he did such great things.”
News researchers Julie Domiel and Michael Knoop contributed to this report.