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GI Bill college help came for one vet’s family but others still dealing with military’s broken promises

A Marine veteran’s daughter, faced with a sudden and crushing debt, chose not to go to law school — after being accepted and putting down a deposit — rather than face more debt. A proposal in Congress promises a fix.

Dale Saran and his daughter Rebecca on the Fourth of July 1997. After a 20-year career in the Marines, Saran intended to transfer his Post-9/11 GI Bill education benefit to his daughters. It worked — until it didn’t.
Dale Saran and his daughter Rebecca on the Fourth of July 1997. After a 20-year career in the Marines, Saran intended to transfer his Post-9/11 GI Bill education benefit to his daughters. It worked — until it didn’t.
Provided photo

The first inkling anything was wrong for Rebecca Dougherty came one morning last year with an email from Credit Karma.

Three debts associated with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs suddenly had appeared in her credit file. That dropped her credit score more than 100 points.

Alarmed, Dougherty, who lives in New York and was planning her wedding, called the VA. She figured someone must have stolen her identity and applied for a VA loan.

But it wasn’t identity theft that derailed her financial future.

The federal government for years had authorized Dougherty and her sister to use their father’s benefits under the federal Post-9/11 GI Bill to get free tuition, books and living expenses for college. Now, saying there was a problem with their father’s paperwork, the VA had canceled the approvals and was demanding that she immediately pay back $87,000 for her education at Boston University and that her sister Molly repay $27,000 for hers at the University of South Carolina.

And their younger sister Rachel wouldn’t get any of the college money their father had been promised.

After learning she now faced this unexpected and overwhelming debt, Dougherty says: “I think I spent the whole day crying, which was not good because my wedding was a week later. I felt guilty on my whole honeymoon: How can I spend this money?”

Dougherty says that until she read a Chicago Sun-Times investigation about students on the hook because of the government’s GI Bill errors and broken promises, “I thought I was one of the only people who was experiencing something like this.”

Rebecca Dougherty, wearing a white dress, pins a flower on the jacket of her father, Dale Saran, at her wedding in 2018.
Rebecca Dougherty pins a flower on her father Dale Saran at her wedding last year.
Provided photo

She is among young people all over the country — including a former DePaul University student who was mistakenly hit with a $20,000 debt — who say the government is hounding them for college money their parents earned by serving in the military. They and their lawyers say children of veterans are wrongly being put in financial peril.

“I think that anybody who has transferred benefits should be concerned,” says Tim McHugh, a Richmond, Virginia, attorney, former Army paratrooper and Purple Heart recipient who is helping Dougherty with her case. The debt collections, all involving children of veterans who have served since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, are “frustrating and disheartening,” McHugh says.

U.S. Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-California, says the government “is breaking our commitment to military families and creating confusion among service members” by first approving and then later trying to take back college payments. Along with Reps. Adam Kinzinger, R-Illinois, Michael Waltz, R-Florida, Jason Crow, D-Colorado, and Gil Cisneros, D-California, Panetta introduced legislation Thursday to simplify the rules for transferring college benefits under the law to dependents and try to stave off future GI Bill horror stories.

Dale Saran was a Marine helicopter pilot before getting his law degree and becoming a Judge Advocate General’s Corps attorney.
Dale Saran was a Marine helicopter pilot before getting his law degree and becoming a Judge Advocate General’s Corps attorney.
Provided photo

Dougherty’s father Dale Saran served 20 years in the Marine Corps. Saran, who now lives in Arizona, was a helicopter pilot and later, after getting his law degree, a Judge Advocate General’s Corps attorney. In between, he spent two years working for the U.S. government in a civilian capacity in Afghanistan.

Saran left the Marines when he didn’t make lieutenant colonel and was honorably retired. He says the VA couldn’t explain why his children were suddenly cut from the GI Bill benefits he’d earned, though he suspects a clerical error in the recording of his reserve drills. He’s been trying to fix the problem since last year.

“There’s never been an explanation,” says Saran, who is petitioning a Navy board to correct his record.

Then-Major Dale Saran, who served 20 years in the Marines in April 2006 at Camp Pendleton, California, during his days with as a Judge Advocate General’s Corps attorney.
Then-Major Dale Saran, who served 20 years in the Marines in April 2006 at Camp Pendleton, California, during his days with as a Judge Advocate General’s Corps attorney.
AP

He recently persuaded the VA to halt the debt collections while his case continues.

The problems Rebecca Dougherty is facing are similar to what happened to Paige Dotson, a former DePaul student who left the Chicago university after the VA cut off her funding in mid-freshman year and demanded $20,000 be paid back.

Her father Russell Dotson, a decorated Navy vet from Flint, Michigan, had been told that if he stayed in the service for four more years, he could transfer his Post-9/11 GI Bill educational benefits to his daughter and her brother. He served for 22 years, had six overseas deployments and was cited for saving two lives. He says the Navy told him before he retired that he’d met all of his obligations.

But the VA later told Dotson, who at the end was in the reserves, he was 89 days short — the equivalent of six weekend reservist drill days. Which he could have covered with time off that he was owed, had he been advised correctly.

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

After the Sun-Times’ report last month, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Michigan, and nine other senators and representatives persuaded the acting secretary of the Navy to apply those unused leave days to push back Dotson’s retirement date. On Wednesday, Dotson was notified that the VA had fully reinstated eligibility for Paige Dotson and her younger brother. That wiped out her debt. The government also promised to cover two years of college for each, which, for Paige Dotson alone, could be worth $40,000 to $50,000.

The military, overstretched, has dangled what it calls Post-9/11 GI Bill transferability as a way to get service members to stay on longer. If service members agree to stay in for four extra years, they earn the right to pass their college education benefits on to a spouse or children. There are similar provisions for officers.

Some former service members who’ve had multiple deployments have told the Sun-Times the chance of getting free college for their children was too attractive to pass up. They saw it as a way to try to make up for frequent family moves, missed milestones and years of worry.

But Paige Dotson and Rebecca Dougherty are hardly the only ones with GI Bill horror stories, the Sun-Times has found. Among others:

  • A decorated Massachusetts Army veteran with nearly 21 years, including stints in Iraq and Afghanistan, says he checked twice with his command career counselor before retiring and was told he’d met all obligations. But when his college-freshman daughter applied to use his GI Bill benefit, he was told he retired 24 days too soon — and that she won’t get anything.
  • An Army veteran in Chicago who successfully transferred his educational benefit to two of his children saw his third child denied any money. Even though he registered his daughter in the military’s computer system, he didn’t click where required to assign her at least one month of benefits. He’s pursuing a challenge. The error, if allowed to stand, will cost his daughter thousands of dollars in tuition and living expenses.
  • In Tennessee, a 24-year-old man is facing collections for more than $30,000 paid for his community college under his father’s GI Bill benefits. The government belatedly said there’d been an error with the father’s application and that the son has to repay the money.

When these benefits are denied, the VA tells veterans the college money is still there if they want to use it to go back to school themselves — but they can’t transfer the promised money to their children.

A 57-year-old Swartz Creek, Michigan, veteran with a son and daughter who are being hounded for $30,000 for their schooling got a letter from the VA suggesting that he consider going to college to “provide increased family income” that could help pay off his kids’ debt to the government.

The Sun-Times’ report Tuesday on the Navy fixing things for a former DePaul University student.
The Sun-Times’ report Tuesday on the Navy fixing things for a former DePaul University student.

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan, who joined Durbin, Kildee and others in intervening on the Dotsons’ behalf, says the worry they wrongly faced is “absolutely shameful.”

“Unfortunately, this situation is not unique to the Dotson family,” Peters says. “These broken promises are hurting our nation’s heroes and their families. And they must be rectified.”

Service records can be confusing, with military personnel often moving between enlisted service and the reserves, then back to active duty. Some vets, like Dotson, say they were told incorrectly they’d fulfilled all their obligations.

Correcting a service record can be a daunting challenge. Appeals are possible. But it can take 18 months or longer to get a ruling on a records appeal.

The bill now in Congress, which has bipartisan support, is a companion to the Post-9/11 GI Bill Transferability Entitlement Act introduced earlier this year by Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Jon Tester of Montana and Sherrod Brown of Ohio.

Under the proposal, service members with at least 10 years in the military can transfer their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to their dependents. And they can make that decision while still in the service or as a veteran after leaving the military.

“We must keep these promises and alleviate any barriers to veterans from receiving the benefits they deserve and earned from their selfless service,” Kinzinger said in announcing the bill.

Rebecca Dougherty and her sister Molly at Molly’s college graduation last year. They’ve been told they have to repay a combined $114,000 for GI Bill benefits paid for their educations.
Rebecca Dougherty and her sister Molly at Molly’s college graduation last year. They’ve been told they have to repay a combined $114,000 for GI Bill benefits paid for their educations.
Provided photo

McHugh, the attorney helping Dougherty, says he’s hopeful all three sisters will get their benefits restored. But he’s frustrated that they and their father have to fight for that.

“That should not be the way these things should work,” he says. “It should be a favorable system to vets and their families.”

The crushing debt Dougherty now faces already threatens her future. She was accepted last year to law school at Rutgers University in New Jersey and put down a deposit to hold her seat. But she withdrew after learning of the GI Bill debt.

“I could not fathom taking out a single student loan,” says Dougherty, who’s working as a fund-raiser for a not-for-profit organization. “It just did not seem like the right financial choice.”

She hopes a fix comes and that it isn’t too late for her family.

“I wouldn’t wish this on anyone,” she says.