Using obscure rules to snatch away benefits is unfair to military families


When our nation orders soldiers into battle, we don’t see them trying to duck it by reading aloud from the fine print.

And Uncle Sam owes them the same loyalty in return.

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We can do right by our military men and women and their families, or we can play lawyerly games.

Unfortunately, as Stephanie Zimmermann reported in Sunday’s Chicago Sun-Times, military families are being socked with big college bills that they were promised would be covered by the government.

The rules are so complicated that even those advising the families misunderstand them, and soldiers are getting stiffed.

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The federal government should quit the games and pick up the college tab for military families who sincerely thought they were following the rules. And Washington should make the rules clearer. This is about rewarding soldiers, not making work for lawyers.


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Chicago Sun-Times. SOURCES: Congressional Budget Office, Department of Veterans Affairs

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The Post-9/11 GI Bill, which was signed into law in 2008, pays for college tuition, books and housing for veterans who served after 9/11. It also allows qualified veterans to transfer their education benefit to their children or a spouse, a perk that has helped the military persuade service members to re-enlist.

But some service members have discovered after the fact that the “benefits” were a one-way street. They may have re-enlisted for the primary purpose of qualifying for college aid for a son or daughter, only to have the government sock them with a bill.

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In one case, Paige Dotson, the daughter of a 22-year Navy veteran who saved two lives in a rocket attack and ground assault in Afghanistan, was told that the government would no longer pay her educational expenses at DePaul University — and she would have to pay back $20,000.

Had the Navy clearly explained the rules in the first place, Dotson’s Navy dad could have ensured the bills were paid by putting in just another six days of weekend military service. Moreover, the $20,000 didn’t go back to the government; it went into an account the father could use to pay his own education bills, should he have any.

Fixing this mix-up, that is to say, would cost the government nothing.

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Vadim Panasyuk, a senior manager with the nonprofit organization Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, told Zimmermann he is aware of more than 40 families in the same fix. One family owes the government $60,000.

Service dates can be confusing to calculate, so the service members asked their military branches for the correct information, to ensure they served the right number of days to qualify for transferring their educational benefits. Their kids went off to school, where tuition and living expenses were covered as planned. But then, months later, the government announced that there had been an error — and nothing could be done to fix it.

We’d like to stress that we understand why government bureaucrats must, as a rule, stick by the rules. Making exceptions can create unforeseen problems. But the military families here clearly believed — and in some cases were told — that they were, indeed, following the rules. They’re not looking for favors, only fairness. They’re looking for common sense to prevail.

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Spending excludes active-duty service members, who are about 10 percent of all annual beneficiaries.
Chicago Sun-Times: SOURCES: Congressional Budget Office, Department of Veterans Affairs

Proposed legislation in Congress, the Post-9/11 GI Bill Transferability Entitlement Act, would simplify the rules and make it easier for veterans to claim educational benefits. That’s a step in the right direction.

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Now what will we do for those who have already been cheated?

What will we do for Paige Dotson?

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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