This article was originally published by Stars & Stripes on September 16, 2020. 

Vets deserve proper info from DOD to avoid GI Bill debt

Aniela Szymanski is senior director for Legal Affairs and Military Policy at Veterans Education Success.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been harsh on veterans, especially those who owe a debt to the Department of Veterans Affairs. According to a Government Accountability Office report, 1 in 4 GI Bill students experiences a debt with VA. Even worse, VA debts are too often not accurate or fair. Imagine how it feels for veterans who owe a debt to VA that is not their fault?

When bureaucratic negligence results in a veteran owing the government money, especially during a global pandemic that is leading to economic hardship, it creates a nightmare scenario.

Consider the case of James, one of many veterans my organization, Veterans Education Success, gives free legal services to each year. James, a Navy veteran, was shocked that he received a bill from VA for nearly $60,000. It was the entire tuition bill for his wife’s degree, which she earned using his transferred entitlement.

It turns out he had retired one weekend too early and thereby failed to satisfy the four-year obligation to be eligible to transfer the GI Bill. His wife attended college using his GI Bill while he was still serving. It was not until after he retired that the mistake in his retirement date was discovered.

His retirement went through the normal approval process. No one in the Department of Defense told him that his retirement date was going to disqualify him from transferring the GI Bill. His wife had already been approved. He had every reason to trust DOD would inform him if he was doing something wrong.

Although VA announced debt collection would be suspended during the pandemic, VA will start collecting the debt after the temporary suspension ends, placing James and his wife in a financial bind.

And James is not alone.

Albert discovered he unexpectedly owed VA $100,000. His father retired before completing his additional four-year obligation after transferring his GI Bill, but Albert had already graduated. Another veteran we are helping owes over $36,000 for the same reason.

Surprisingly, VA is not to blame. Although VA is charged with collecting this debt, the problem originates with DOD.

These debts are owed by veterans who transferred their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to a dependent, usually a spouse or child, and agreed to stay in the armed forces for four additional years. Yet DOD allowed them to separate before completing their four years without warning them of the financial consequences. Separating before completing the additional four-year obligation means that any GI Bill benefits used by the dependent must be paid back to VA.

Some of these debts, like the ones mentioned above, are avoidable. Federal regulations make clear it is the military’s responsibility to check dates carefully before a service member separates to avoid these types of issues.

For example, Navy regulations state that if a sailor is retiring before the four-year obligation is completed, the Navy must advise him or her that he or she will not be entitled to transfer the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

At least in the case of the veterans who have come to us for help, the Navy and other DOD officials are not ensuring servicemembers receive proper advice about separation dates and the impact that leaving too soon has on their transferred GI Bill benefits. Furthermore, the service branches are not updating their personnel systems to reflect the additional four-year obligation a member incurs once they transfer their benefit.

DOD can easily fix this problem by updating its personnel systems to ensure that both the military and the servicemember clearly know the exact date when the member satisfies their four-year payback after transferring their GI Bill benefits.

Service personnel offices are the key to the solution. They should add a step in which the personnel office handling the additional service agreement changes the servicemember’s separation date to accurately reflect the additional service time needed. This would ensure that the servicemember and the military both acknowledge the new retirement date in the online personnel records. The servicemember can appropriately plan his or her retirement and avoid massive debts to VA.

This is an easy fix, one that would ensure both the servicemember and DOD have a clear understanding of a servicemember’s separation date and avoid debilitating GI Bill debt during a national pandemic.