Kelli Hower was six months pregnant with her first child last spring when the phone call came.
At first, the Michigan woman thought it was a scammer. But it turned out to be all too real.
The caller was a debt collector, on contract with the U.S. Treasury Department. And he had bad news: Hower owed the federal government $12,000 for college tuition payments and living expenses she’d received through her veteran father’s benefits under the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
Hower, 30, couldn’t believe it. To start, those were benefits she’d used years ago. And her father Bruce Coxworth, 57, of Swartz Creek, Michigan, had earned them. He’d served 22-1/2 years as a military police officer with the Army National Guard, with active-duty assignments that took him far from home.
“They said, ‘You owe the federal government $12,000 — and we need it now,’ ” Hower says. “I started crying. I said, ‘I never got any letters, so what are you talking about?’ ”
Hower and her father are among more than a dozen families who contacted the Chicago Sun-Times after a story Nov. 10 on military families hit with hefty college bills they were promised would be covered by the government under the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
The rules are complicated. Service members, relying on those whose job it is to advise them, later find they were told in error they’d put in enough time to qualify to share the college benefits with their dependents.
Two veterans described staying in the military four extra years because they were told, erroneously as things turned out, that would qualify them. One later learned he was six weekend service days short of qualifying.
For the past decade, an overextended U.S. military has dangled the ability to transfer these GI Bill benefits to spouses or children to entice service members to stay in longer. If they agree to re-enlist or extend their service, those who qualify can pass along four years of college paid for by the government, including tuition, housing and books.
But veterans have described being given incorrect information at the time of their discharge or retirement, mistakes they learned of only when their children enrolled in college or even later, and the government demanded the money be repaid with interest.
These families describe having their children’s college payments withdrawn, then being told the college money is still available — but only for the veterans if they want to go to school themselves.
“That really concerns us,” says Steve Patterson, spokesman for the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States, which is backing legislation to simplify benefit transfers.
“Our veterans and their families should not lose these critical benefits because of bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo,” says U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, whose staff is in touch with the family of Paige Dotson, a former DePaul University student whose benefits were pulled. “I’m prepared to rewrite the law to give our vets the benefits they were promised.”
After serving with the Army National Guard for more than two decades as a sergeant first class and military police officer, Hower’s father registered to split his education benefits among his children, who’d each use a portion to offset their college costs.
As he neared retirement, Coxworth says his records were reviewed at his unit, then by National Guard personnel in Michigan and that he was told he’d fulfilled his commitments.
His eldest son and daughter together used about 22 months of his GI Bill benefit, he for a community college degree and Hower for part of her bachelor’s degree and a master’s.
Then, last year, their younger brother put in a request to tap his portion for college. The federal Department of Veterans Affairs said no, then delivered a shock. Its records showed Coxworth was five months shy of the service time he needed — the equivalent of 10 drill days, as National Guard members train one weekend a month — and couldn’t transfer his benefit.
And the government demanded close to $18,000 in past payments from Coxworth’s son and about $12,000 from his daughter.
The VA says Coxworth still could use the money for his own schooling, just not for his children, as he’d planned.
In a letter to his son, the VA wrote: “You might consider seeking repayment assistance from your veteran parent ... If you [sic] parent utilizes his restored education benefits, that could provide increased family income.”
Coxworth, 57, says it’s preposterous to suggest he use the GI Bill money in hopes he’d make more money later on so he could help his kids repay the government.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Coxworth says. “I was bowled over.”
His daughter’s debt ballooned with penalties and interest. It ended up going to a collection agency after, she says, letters sent by the VA — addressed incorrectly, she later discovered — never reached her. She says her credit score fell 132 points, and her income-tax refund was garnished.
Reluctantly, she tapped into savings set aside to extend her maternity leave. “We had to use that money to pay this off, so I had to go back to work earlier than planned,” she says.
Coxworth says he trusted the National Guard staff member who tallied his service time as he reached retirement and told him his obligations had been met.
Now, he’s trying to get his duty credits adjusted or get permission to come back and perform 10 days of service. But the family has been told it could take up to two years to get a decision from an Army review board.
“I just think it’s a broken system,” says Hower, who works in human resources for the state of Michigan.
Gary Miller of Oneida, New York, says he, too, was given bad information on Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits. He served 33 years active duty as a technical sergeant in the Air Force and says he was told he could transfer his college benefits to his children.
His daughter, now 22, used her father’s benefits to attend three semesters at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut in 2015 and 2016, with the VA covering her tuition and housing.
Then, the government suddenly stopped paying, saying Miller retired too early to be able to transfer the benefit — and that his daughter had to repay about $69,000.
The family is appealing the decision.
“I spent 30 years in the military, to have this pulled out from under me,” Miller says.
Other vets and their families told the Sun-Times information was miscommunicated while they were still in the military or as they were getting ready to exit. In some cases, they say, command staff or civilian contractors — hired to meet with soldiers, sailors or airmen — apparently weren’t knowledgeable about the requirements.
A senior manager with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America organization told the Sun-Times he’s heard from more than 40 families who’ve had benefits yanked back, with some facing debts of nearly $60,000.
Legislation introduced in September by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, would simplify the rules on transferability. The Post-9/11 GI Bill Transferability Entitlement Act would allow any service member who has served at least 10 years to transfer benefits to their dependents at any time — while on active duty or as a veteran.
The Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States and the Reserve Enlisted Association are backing the bill.
Other vets say they have had problems accessing their GI Bill benefits even for themselves.
Kevin Carroll, of Farmington Hills, Michigan, was an Army artillery officer from 2008 to 2012 before being medically retired over a back injury suffered in a training jump. Carroll says he was told by a contractor doing his exit counseling he’d met all requirements to get his GI Bill benefit.
Six years later, when he wanted to use it to get a master’s of business administration at Michigan State University, Carroll says he was told he was three days short — which he would have stayed in and served had he been given the correct information.
“I was literally sick to my stomach,” Carroll says of getting the news. “I got screwed on this, and there’s no other way to describe it.”
He says he’ll end up with about $70,000 in student loans to finance his schooling.
Chicagoan Vince Perritano got a similar surprise trying to tap his benefit for graduate school. The former Marine sergeant had served from 2004 to 2008, doing two tours in Iraq. Perritano says he enlisted at 18 with a sense of idealism, to challenge himself and to get a free education.
After serving, Perritano, now 34, used some of his GI Bill benefit to complete a bachelor’s degree at Columbia College Chicago. He says he was careful to carry a less-than-full courseload in hopes of stretching his benefit to cover most of a master’s degree.
But he later found that errors with his VA records cut his benefit short by a semester or more. Discouraged by “an impossible amount of paperwork” to try to prove the mistake, he first left it unaddressed but now is trying to correct his record. Meanwhile, his grad school plans are on hold because he doesn’t want to take out loans.
“I’m allergic to debt,” Perritano jokes. Then, he gets serious. “I put my life on the line in Iraq so I would not have to pay for college.”