Sen. Dick Durbin: Fix ‘bureaucratic failures’ that forced Navy vet’s daughter to leave DePaul

She and her father, a decorated war hero, ‘acted honorably and in good faith, and they should not have to shoulder the burden for the Navy’s bureaucratic failures,’ senator and others write.

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Paige Dotson in Chicago, where she attended DePaul University until her family’s Post-9/11 GI Bill benefit was taken away during her freshman year.

Paige Dotson in Chicago, where she attended DePaul University until her family’s Post-9/11 GI Bill benefit was taken away during her freshman year.

Provided photo

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and 10 others in Congress urged the new acting secretary of the Navy on Tuesday to erase a former DePaul University student’s debt, citing “bureaucratic failures” revealed by a Chicago Sun-Times investigation last month.

In a letter to Acting Navy Secretary Thomas B. Modly, Durbin, D-Illinois, and others including U.S. Rep. Daniel Kildee, D-Michigan, asked for former DePaul student Paige Dotson’s benefits under the Post-9/11 GI Bill to be restored. They also want the government to wipe clean the debt of more than $20,000 that she’s been told to repay.

Kildee represents the Flint, Michigan, hometown of Dotson’s father, decorated Navy veteran Russell Dotson.

In the letter, which also went to Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie, the senators and representatives wrote: “Dotson and his daughter acted honorably and in good faith, and they should not have to shoulder the burden for the Navy’s bureaucratic failures.”

The others who signed the letter were Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, and Reps. Debbie Dingell, Rashida Tlaib, Brenda Lawrence, Andy Levin, Elissa Slotkin and Haley Stevens, all Democrats from Michigan.

In November, the Sun-Times reported the government began paying for Paige Dotson to attend DePaul but stopped in the middle of her freshman year — and demanded she repay what already was paid.

Her father had mistakenly been told he’d served long enough to qualify for his children to use his college benefits under the Post-9/11 GI Bill. He ended up being six days of weekend reserve service short, which the accrued time off he’d earned could have covered had he been advised correctly.

Russell Dotson was a senior chief boatswain’s mate, serving for more than two decades on active duty and in the reserves. He was honored for “decisive and selfless actions” in helping save two lives in 2010 during a ground assault and rocket attack in Kandahar, Afghanistan. He gave first aid to a NATO contractor, then, using just his hands, stanched the bleeding of a wounded Marine.

He agreed to remain in the service for a final four years with the promise he would be able to transfer his GI Bill educational benefit to his children. When he retired in 2017, he was told he’d satisfied all of his obligations. But he needed 89 more days — which, as a reservist, would have meant doing a total of six more days of weekend drills.

Russell Dotson has tried to get the naval records bureau to change his retirement date and apply the unused leave days he’d earned. He says he’d be willing to drill for the six days if that would erase the debt hanging over his now-22-year-old daughter, who transferred to the University of Michigan so she could get in-state tuition but still is working three part-time jobs on top of having to take out loans.

The federal Department of Veterans Affairs told Dotson the GI Bill money is still available — but only if he, now 51, wants to return to school and use it for himself.

In their letter, Durbin, Kildee and the others wrote, “This entire chain of unfortunate events was caused because, despite the Navy’s advice to Retired Senior Chief Dotson on his decision to retire, the Navy miscalculated his eligibility to maintain the transfer of his education benefits.”

The military has dangled the ability to transfer the college education benefit to dependents as a way to keep people in the service longer.

But the rules are complicated. Some service members have told the Sun-Times they were told in error they’d served long enough to qualify to share the college benefits with their dependents.

Paige Dotson talks about her father first being deployed overseas for a year when she was 5. To help her understand how long he’d be away, a family friend gave her a jar of M&Ms and told her to eat just one a day. When the jar was empty, her dad would come home.

“My mom caught me eating the whole jar, and I said that’s because it’ll make him come home faster,” she said Tuesday. “I was so scared.”

Navy vet Russell Dotson and his son Drake (left) during the father’s military service. Paige Dotson (right) visits her dad’s patrol boat as a child.

Navy vet Russell Dotson and his son Drake (left) during the father’s military service. Paige Dotson (right) visits her dad’s patrol boat as a child.

Provided photo

She said the letter from the senators and representatives “gives me hope that somebody cares” about her and others with their own Post-9/11 GI Bill horror stories.

“I don’t want these families to have to wait for this slow-moving bureaucracy,” she said. “They need help now.”

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TELL US YOUR STORY

Are you a service member who has had a hard time accessing GI Bill benefits for yourself or a family member? We want to hear your story. Email reporter Stephanie Zimmermann at szimmermann@suntimes.com.

U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, Jon Tester, D-Montana, and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, have introduced the Post-9/11 GI Bill Transferability Entitlement Act, which would let service members or veterans with at least 10 years transfer their benefits at any time.

Russell Dotson said he’s “cautiously hopeful.”

“There should be an easier way than this to correct something,” he said.

CLICK TO HEAR REPORTER STEPHANIE ZIMMERMANN

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