Nearly 7,000 American soldiers have died fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere following 9/11. The federal government subsequently established programs for their children, but has befuddled and frustrated many families with confusing, and sometimes contradictory, eligibility guidelines.
The US Department of Veterans Affairs changed eligibility rules for these programs again this week, to the detriment of these “Gold Star” children of soldiers who died. The changes could save the federal government tens of millions of dollars, while costing individual Gold Star children who attend university up to an estimated $25,600 in benefits.
The handling of these programs, some of it done out of offices in Buffalo, adds to the list of administrative snafus over the management of veterans benefits that has subjected the VA to strong criticism nationwide.
“The VA makes mistakes all the time that cost students thousands of dollars,” Brad Baumgardner, coordinator of Veteran and Military Services at Buffalo State, told Investigative Post.
“Interpretation of policy changes every day depending on who is in charge and who you ask on any given day,” he said.
At issue is whether Gold Star children are eligible to receive both death and educational benefits. The VA, at different points over at least the past four years, has provided applicants with conflicting information as to their eligibility for certain benefits. As a result, the VA has approved benefits for some Gold Star children and denied them for others.
“The process of dealing with the VA on these issues has been horrific,” said Kelly Crowley McMillan, an upstate resident whose husband died in Iraq in 2003. “There is not one good place to go to. You have to find out information by yourself.”
VA officials provided Investigative Post with a limited response to questions, while failing to answer most. They made changes to their guidelines after Investigative Post pointed out inconsistencies.
The problems revolve around three programs:
- Fry Scholarships, named after a Marine sergeant killed in Iraq in 2006, provide funds for tuition and related costs. Eligibility is limited to family survivors of service members who died after 9/11.
- A second education benefit, called Survivors’ and Dependents’ Educational Assistance, helps to cover expenses such as tuition and books. It is a broader benefit, with eligibility expanded to include the survivors of soldiers disabled or killed in the line of duty in all American wars. The Fry Scholarship provides more assistance than this program.
- A non-educational program, called Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, provides spouses and children of service members who died in the line of duty during service with a monthly payment. This death benefit also applies to families of permanently disabled veterans, after the service member dies.
At issue is whether a Gold Star child can receive both the Fry Scholarship and death benefit at the same time, and whether they can receive the broader education benefit after they have exhausted their Fry Scholarship.
Congress passed legislation in 2011 that prohibited piggybacking the two educational benefits, or pairing the Fry Scholarship with the death benefit. The legislation stipulated these changes would take effect August 2011.
It was a move intended to save the government money.
A Senate report published in 2010 estimated that eliminating the ability of Gold Star children to receive all three benefits could save the federal government $109 million through 2020.
While the eligibility to receive all three benefits was written under the same section of the law, departments within the VA interpreted the effective date of the legislation differently, Investigative Post concluded after a review of documents. This prompted different departments within the VA to provide applicants with different eligibility criteria.
Some applicants were told that they could receive all three benefits if their parent died before August 2011, the Investigative Post review found. Others were told that they could not.
The VA this week adopted a uniform eligibility standard that prohibits Fry Scholarship recipients from also receiving the death benefit at the same time.
It sent an email to Gold Star families on Wednesday saying it had sent letters earlier this year that misstated the eligibility guidelines and that students cannot receive the death benefit while also receiving the Fry Scholarship.
Investigative Post questioned the VA several weeks ago about its conflicting eligibility rules. The VA subsequently changed its manual to adopt a single eligibility standard. A VA spokesperson then told Investigative Post it had a single eligibility standard while failing to acknowledge it made changes after we questioned the competing criteria.
On Wednesday, in a post on a Facebook group for Gold Star widows, one widow wrote in response to the change in the manual: “Every child who WAS eligible, is no longer.”
“I’m so disgusted right now. They changed it because everyone was catching on,” another widow said.
The VA also provided incorrect information to applicants.
For years, the VA’s application form for education benefits incorrectly stated that no Gold Star child was eligible for both the Fry Scholarship and the other education benefit.
In 2014, an employee complained about this error and asked that the application be changed in an email to Allison Hickey, the VA’s top benefits official at the time. The complaints also made their way to another top VA official, Robert Worley, then director of education services.
Worley’s response, according to an email obtained by Investigative Post: “This is a good suggestion. The language will be revised in future versions in order to provide additional clarification for children required to elect a benefit program.”
Six months later, Thomas Alphonso, a team leader on the Policy and Regulation Development Team in the VA’s education service, wrote an email to the same employee who had lodged the initial complaint.
“I know that it has been a long time and for all of this time the flawed [form] has been out there potentially causing trouble but I assure that we have been working on it along with several other high profile projects,” he wrote.
In a follow-up email, he asked the employee to not discuss efforts to fix the form with others in the VA: “can you keep this just between the two of us for the time being?”
The VA waited until this October, nearly four years after the complaint was lodged, to correct the error.
In the meantime, applicants who were unaware they were eligible for both educational benefits missed the opportunity to receive up to an estimated $44,000 in payments.
For families trying to secure educational benefits, navigating this misinformation has been a headache.
“It shouldn’t be this hard,” wrote a widow of a soldier who died in Iraq in an email to a VA employee. “We want our children to get what they are supposed to get for education benefits…it’s that simple.”
Troubled track record
The VA has a history of blunders involving benefits for veterans and their families.
It’s been slow to process disability and pension claims submitted by veterans. At one point, the VA was taking nearly a year to year to process claims.
The VA has also been criticized for withholding benefits from veterans it said were overpaid. This year, a group of senators introduced the Veteran Fair Debt Practice Act, which would prevent the agency from collecting funds in cases where the VA made a mistake or when repayment would cause the veteran financial hardship.
In recent months, the VA said technical glitches caused delays in the payment of GI Bill benefits, including those for education and housing. Members of Congress called for an investigation and introduced a bill that would create a commission at the VA to audit education claims.
“It’s time that the VA stand up and hold someone accountable for their failing actions,” said Texas Representative Jodey Arrington, during a Congressional hearing in November on the GI Bill delays.
Sara Jerving is a reporter for Investigative Post, a nonprofit investigative journalism center focused on issues of importance to Western New York.