FBI agent James Rudisill takes down a flag at sunset at his home. The Army veteran and his Chicago lawyer are asking the Supreme Court to take his case, which could help other long-serving vets tap college educational benefits for themselves and their families that they earned under more than one version of the GI Bill.

FBI agent James Rudisill takes down a flag at sunset at his home. The Army veteran and his Chicago lawyer are asking the Supreme Court to take his case, which could help other long-serving vets tap college educational benefits for themselves and their families that they earned under more than one version of the GI Bill.

Julia Rendleman / Sun-Times

Decorated vet’s last stand: FBI agent wants Supreme Court to make VA stop shortchanging veterans on GI Bill benefits

Army vet James Rudisill has enlisted a Chicago lawyer to persuade the Supreme Court to force the VA to provide mandated educational benefits to himself and 2 million other veterans. Former U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says Rudisill is right.

James Rudisill, a longtime FBI agent who was honored for his bravery and saving lives in Afghanistan, hasn’t been in the Army for years, but now he is waging one last battle for himself and other vets.

Arguing that he was wrongly denied GI Bill educational benefits, Rudisill is taking his fight to the Supreme Court in a legal quest that his Chicago attorney hopes will open up additional college benefits for himself and others and recognize “what veterans have given to this nation.”

If the high court agrees to hear his appeal, its decision in the much-watched case could affect 2 million U.S. military veterans who served at least six years and earned educational benefits under more than one version of the GI Bill, a series of federal laws that entitles vets to benefits for their service.

Rudisill says the federal Department of Veterans Affairs used what a lower-court ruling in his favor agreed were “absurd” calculations that shortchanged him on financial support for postgraduate schooling that he had hoped to use to change careers and help other vets.

He’s right, former U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says.

“I’ve always been of the mind that, when in doubt, always defer to the veteran,” says Hagel, a Vietnam War combat veteran who, as a Republican U.S. senator representing Nebraska, helped marshal bipartisan support for the passage in 2008 of the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

Hagel says in an interview that the aim of the law was to aid veterans. Asked about Rudisill’s case, he says, “It’s the veteran who deserves the break here.”

Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam war vet and former U.S. senator, at a ceremony in 2015.

Former U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is a Vietnam War vet who, as a Republican U.S. senator from Nebraska, helped win passage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

Mark Wilson / Getty Images

Enacted as a way to help keep people in military service longer and stabilize the nation’s all-volunteer armed forces, the Post-9/11 GI Bill was the first upgrade of the original law in almost 25 years and now accounts for the bulk of GI Bill benefits, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Rudisill earned educational benefits under two separate GI Bills:

  • The Montgomery GI Bill, into which service members pay.
  • And the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which is supposed to automatically cover up to 36 months of tuition, housing and books.

He enlisted in the Army in 2000. After getting out in 2002, he used about 25 months of his Montgomery GI Bill benefits for college, then returned to the military in 2004 after friends were killed in action. He initially joined the North Carolina National Guard, later becoming a commissioned Army officer, serving five more years on active duty, including two tours of duty in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.

He was wounded in suicide-bomb attacks and by roadside bombs. And, as a platoon leader in Afghanistan, he helped save lives by turning back a Taliban assault on a remote outpost while directing medical evacuations under fire. He was awarded the Bronze Star, among other honors, and attained the rank of captain.

James Rudisill was medically evacuated in 2005 to Balad Air Base’s combat support hospital in Iraq.

A wounded James Rudisill when he was medically evacuated in 2005 to Balad Air Base’s combat support hospital in Iraq.

Provided

After leaving the Army, he joined the FBI, where his work has included investigating ISIS supporters and white supremacists.

Under federal law, veterans can use benefits they’ve earned under both the Montgomery GI Bill and the Post-9/11 GI Bill to pay for a maximum of 48 months of college or other higher education.

Having previously used just over 25 months of his Montgomery GI Bill benefits for his bachelor’s degree, Rudisill figured he had about 22 months of benefits remaining. He planned to tap that number of months from his Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to get a divinity degree at Yale University so he could return to the Army as a chaplain and minister to troops.

But the VA calculated his remaining benefits differently. The agency figured that, because Rudisill still had 10 months of unused Montgomery GI Bill educational benefits, it would give him only that much, converted to Post-9/11 benefits. And that was all he could get, according to the VA.

That would come to a total of 36 months under the two plans — 12 months fewer than the combined maximum of 48 months that he’d counted on. That ruined his chance to go to Yale, to which he’d already been accepted but which he couldn’t afford without the GI Bill money.

Rudisill, who lives in Virginia, sued and won twice, but then saw that court victory overturned on appeal. That’s the ruling he wants the Supreme Court to overturn if the court decides to hear his case.

Rudisill has been fighting the VA for so long that, now 43, he’s too old to be accepted into the Army chaplain program.

“This isn’t about me,” he says. “It hasn’t been for years and years now. It’s about my brother and sister veterans being misled and not getting everything they earned.”

James Rudisill, who learned Monday that the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to take up his case involving college benefits earned under the Post-9/11 GI Bill and Montgomery GI Bill.

James Rudisill is now too old at 43 to be accepted into the Army chaplain program he’d hoped to join.

Julia Rendleman / Sun-Times

One of his lawyers calls Rudisill’s circumstances “a trap for the unwary” that can ensnare all veterans who use part of their Montgomery GI Bill benefits and expect to be able to separately tap Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits.

Rudisill won a victory in 2019 when the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims — the federal court with exclusive jurisdiction on veterans’ matters — ruled in his favor, saying Congress never intended to shortchange veterans.

The federal government appealed, and Rudisill won again in 2021, when a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit sided with him.

But the VA asked for a reconsideration by the full bench of appellate judges. In December, a majority of the full appellate court sided with the government.

A VA spokesman won’t comment beyond saying agency officials agree with the appellate court ruling.

“It was immensely disappointing,” Rudisill says. “At this point, not for myself, but for the millions of veterans who are stymied by this very narrow interpretation of the statute.”

Chicago lawyer cites pro-vet rulings

Misha Tseytlin, a Chicago partner in the law firm Troutman Pepper, is part of Rudisill’s all-volunteer legal team. The lawyers argue that the VA’s calculations don’t make sense based on the laws themselves and also based on court rulings favoring veterans going back to World War II.

That so-called “pro-veteran canon” says that “because veterans have given so much to this nation, if there’s any ambiguity, give the vets the benefit of the doubt concerning benefits,” Tseytlin says.

Misha Tseytlin stands by a window in the downtown Chicago offices of Troutman Pepper, the law firm in which he is a partner. Tseytlin is a Chicago lawyer representing James Rudisill in his appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Misha Tseytlin, the Chicago lawyer representing James Rudisill in his appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

Tim McHugh, a former Army paratrooper who is another lawyer on Rudisill’s team, says Congress’ intent must be considered. “Think about what is the purpose of these programs in the first place,” he says.

Hagel — who was a deputy VA administrator under President Ronald Reagan and Defense secretary under President Barack Obama — says that when Democrat Jim Webb of Virginia proposed the 2008 law, he enthusiastically agreed to co-sponsor it to help vets readjust to civilian life. The Post-9/11 GI Bill, which took effect in 2009, provides added educational benefits — including being able to share those benefits with a veteran’s children or spouse — in exchange for staying on in the military longer.

“We were sending these men and women back into combat for one, two, three, four tours and more,” Hagel says. “You are counting on these people to go back and back and back.”

Of Rudisill’s case, Hagel says: “I hope the Supreme Court takes it up, and I hope they study it very carefully and look at all the factors.”

If they do, he says, the pro-veteran canon should tip the scales toward Rudisill and others like him.

“I’ve always believed they deserve a little extra edge,” Hagel says. “Vets don’t expect anything free. But they do expect some kind of acknowledgement. And it’s an investment. When you educate a veteran, you are making an investment in the country.”

SIU grad: ‘A house of mirrors’

Retired Coast Guard Cmdr. Michael Petta, who got his undergraduate degree from Southern Illinois University through a Navy program, is in the same position as Rudisill.

Petta’s story was included in a friend-of-the-court brief in Rudisill’s case last year. The Boston-area man enlisted in the Navy in 1992, serving as a submarine technician while taking classes from SIU online. He left the Navy in 2000 but rejoined after 9/11. In 2002, he became a Coast Guard officer and later was accepted into a Coast Guard law school program, for which he used just over 33 months of his Montgomery GI Bill benefits.

During two decades in the Coast Guard, he also earned Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, which he never touched.

Going by the 48-month maximum, Petta still would have had nearly 15 months of college benefits to transfer to his children. But the VA used the same math that it did with Rudisill, saying Petta had less than three months available — shorting him of 12 months that are supposed to be provided under the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

Retired Coast Guard Cmdr. Michael Petta, who says the VA shorted his children out of college benefits he’d earned for them with his decades of military service.

Retired Coast Guard Cmdr. Michael Petta says the VA shorted his children out of college benefits he’d earned for them with his decades of military service.

Provided

Petta calls the VA’s decisions “horribly bureaucratic.” He says he was told that if he had used up the three remaining months of Montgomery GI Bill benefits before applying to use his Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, his kids would have gotten the 12 months he thought he was entitled to.

After he challenged the VA’s decision, he got a form letter saying his son could get 14 months and 23 days of his benefits. He celebrated — and then another letter arrived saying his son could get only two months and 23 days.

“It’s a house of mirrors,” Petta says. “I’m not asking anybody to feel bad for me. But what frustrates me is there are service members who are much worse off than I am.”

Veterans and their advocates have been closely watching Rudisill’s case.

Among them: U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a retired Army lieutenant colonel who flew combat missions in Iraq, was awarded the Purple Heart and was an assistant VA secretary under Obama.

Duckworth’s spokeswoman says the senator “believes in the veterans canon that, if there is ambiguity in the laws providing benefits, courts should decide cases in a manner that benefits the veterans seeking benefits.”

U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth: Give vets the benefit of the doubt in deciding benefits.

AP

Aniela Szymanski, a Nevada lawyer who specializes in veterans issues, says the December appellate decision in Rudisill’s case glossed over that long tradition of law regarding vets.

“If the court was going to err on any side, it should have been on the side of the veterans,” says Szymanski, who served active duty in the Marine Corps and remains an officer in the Marine Reserves.

Natalie Coleman, an Illinois Army National Guard veteran and Will County Board member who’s a volunteer advocate with the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, says the VA’s mission to aid vets should override any decisions based on cost.

Natalie Coleman, who was a captain in the Illinois Army National Guard and served in Iraq, says vets “absolutely deserve those benefits.”

Natalie Coleman, who was a captain in the Illinois Army National Guard and served in Iraq, says vets “absolutely deserve those benefits.”

Provided

“It behooves the government to really stick to their promise of taking care of veterans,” Coleman says. “They absolutely deserve those benefits.”


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