December 01, 2020

Duckworth calls for ‘compassionate resolution’ for vets facing GI Bill problems

Source: Chicago Sun-Times


U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth is calling on the military to show “compassion” in addressing bureaucratic mistakes that have led to the children of long-serving veterans losing out on Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits for college and, in some cases, being forced to repay money the government already has paid on their behalf.

“I am concerned about the overarching trend that bureaucratic error and complex calculations are preventing well-meaning veterans from transferring benefits they’ve earned” to their children, the Illinois Democrat said in letters sent to the secretaries of the Army and Air Force.

The letters, sent last week, came in response to an investigation by the Chicago Sun-Times of cases in which people had agreed to serve longer — typically four extra years in the military — to meet the requirements for being able to transfer their Post-9/11 GI Bill money to their children. That covers four years of tuition plus housing and books.

Some veterans were told they had met all of their obligations to retire — only to find out later that they were short a few months of service and that their children didn’t qualify after all to get the money. In some cases, the federal Department of Veterans Affairs approved and paid for students to attend college, then later demanded the money be repaid, saying it had determined that the veteran didn’t qualify after all to transfer the benefits — and the government would now be billing the students. Those sudden debts, with penalties, were as high as $106,000.

At the same time, the VA told the veteran-parents that, even though they didn’t qualify to give the college benefits to their children, the GI Bill money was still there for the vets to use themselves — a situation some found absurd.

Chicago Sun-Times investigation helped get Paige Dotson’s debt waived and her educational benefit restored.

One student, Paige Dotson, said she had to leave DePaul University in the midst of her first year of college after the VA belatedly decided that her father, a decorated Navy senior chief boatswain’s mate who served 22 years on active duty and in the reserves, had retired 89 days too early to qualify. After the Sun-Times reported on Dotson and under pressure from U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, and members of Michigan’s congressional delegation, the then-acting Navy secretary changed Russ Dotson’s retirement dates, waived the debt the VA had said his daughter would have to repay and reinstated the Post-9-11 GI Bill benefits for her and for her brother.

Duckworth highlighted the “compassionate resolution” of the Dotson case in her letters.

“While this case first seemed like an isolated event, it now appears that there are a number of other veterans who are experiencing trouble transferring their benefits,” Duckworth wrote. “We’re seeing a common thread in these cases: The service members in question have earned their benefits, but human error in calculating the required payback has prevented them from passing these valuable benefits on to their family.”

She called on the Army and Air Force to follow the Navy’s example in the Dotson case and consider issuing guidance for their staffs to look for similar cases and “prioritize correcting service records whenever possible to assist veterans and their families.”

Duckworth, a vet who piloted Army helicopters in combat zones, has become one of the most visible advocates for veterans in Congress and is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

In some of the cases the Sun-Times has reported on, vets said they were told their service time would qualify them to transfer their benefits, but later calculations found that was wrong, that they needed to have stayed in the military longer. Because different dates can be listed in, say, a service member’s initial contract and later extensions, as well as when a request to transfer benefits is made, the calculations can be complicated. Service in the reserves can add to that complexity.

The VA says it is “rare” for the government to demand repayments from students because of errors in which it initially paid for them to go to college. According to the VA, it hit 22 dependents of vets with such sudden debts in its 2019 budget year out of 127,354 beneficiaries who received transferred benefits.

But the VA says it doesn’t have data on how many families are denied benefits before a veteran’s children even begin college. Vets have told the Sun-Times that VA reps have told them it isn’t uncommon for families to be shut out entirely.

The Defense Department has said the armed forces “are implementing additional notifications” to help flag potential problems before retirement.

A proposal in Congress whose sponsors include U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Illinois, would allow any veteran with at least 10 years of service to transfer benefits to a spouse or children at any point, even after retiring.

By:  Stephanie Zimmermann