Veterans Education Success, a Washington D.C.-based veterans advocacy organization, sent a letter to the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2020 outlining a series of allegations against the church that were gathered from students and members.
Some students described the church as “cult-like,” telling Veterans Education Success that members who questioned church leaders were publicly humiliated and those who tried to leave were stalked and harassed. “When I see schools taking advantage of service member veterans and their families, it really makes me sick to my stomach, because I know the challenges that they’ve gone through, in a lot of cases, in service to their country…” Will Hubbard, vice president for veterans and military policy with Veterans for Education Success, told McClatchy News. “… It’s really sickening.”
But Hubbard said the church defrauded students on the GI Bill out of an estimated $7 million in education benefits over the last two years. The GI Bill includes full or partial coverage of tuition and fees, a monthly housing allowance and a textbook and supplies stipend for veterans.
The Department of Veterans Affairs GI Bill online comparison tool, which helps veterans compare what benefits they may be eligible for at different approved schools, no longer lists House of Prayer’s Fayetteville, North Carolina, or Hinesville, Georgia, seminary school locations. Fayetteville is about 60 miles south of Raleigh.
“This is something that Veterans Education Success has been pushing (the Department of Veterans Affairs) to do,” Hubbard said through a spokesman. “This means that the VA has likely stopped funding those locations.”
Somai began studying at House of Prayer’s seminary school in Fayetteville a few years after his final deployment to Afghanistan in 2012. He said he was excited to study there but soon started noticing oddities. When Department of Veterans Affairs officials came for inspections, students would have to set up the church’s sanctuary to appear as if classes were held there, when in reality they were held in a different building that had a worse-quality room with a noisy refrigerator that distracted students, he said. Attending church events was part of each student’s grade, and they often had to spend class time recruiting new students or performing chores for church leaders, Somai said.
“It was very rigid, very structured,” he said. “You must follow their codes.”
After a few years of studying, Somai said school officials told him that he would receive an associate degree instead of a bachelor’s. They later said students would earn only a certificate. Somai said he never received any official qualification from the school. “You’re charging us so much, for what?” he said. “You’re robbing the government.”
Somai said he eventually left the school and decided to speak out so that more veterans wouldn’t have the same experience he did.
Hubbard, of Veterans Education Success, said his organization hopes to have the church cut off from all education benefits and church leaders held accountable.
Students who attended this school did so in order to better their careers and their lives, but instead wasted their benefits and their time, “essentially walking away with nothing to show for it,” he said. “Most of them are pretty angry that they expected to have an education, they expected to have a better future, and as many of them have described, that was stolen from them.”
Read the full story in The News & Observer here.