January 12, 2008 – It is only $2,500 out of the billions of dollars spent on the war in Iraq and benefits for America’s soldiers who have fought the war on terrorism.
But to Sean M. Brown, it is something important, meaningful and bigger than the money itself.
”It is the principle” of it, Brown said.
The 24-year-old Akron war veteran found out recently that he owes the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs about $2,500 because the VA is saying he was not entitled to enhanced GI Bill benefits last semester when he attended the University of Akron.
”It’s kind of wrong for the time we served and now we are getting shafted,” said Brown, who joined the Ohio Army National Guard after graduating from Revere High School in 2001.
Because Brown served a year in Iraq with the National Guard’s 135th Military Police Company from 2003 to 2004, he said he was entitled to a year of added college benefits as well as a year of enhanced GI Bill money, or about $350 extra a month.
Brown, whose enlistment in the National Guard ended in June, signed up for the enhanced GI Bill benefit a few months before leaving the guard and began collecting it in August and during the fall semester at UA, where he is a junior.
Because of his deployment to Iraq, he said, he is receiving an additional year of college benefits.
But last week he received a letter from the VA saying he owes the government $2,500 — the difference between his entitled benefit and the enhanced benefit he was collecting.
”I feel I deserve this money,” he said.
Brown, who is married to high school classmate Erin Tyson, said he can’t afford to pay the government back.
Along with going to school full time, Brown works for FirstMerit Bank in corporate security.
Wendell Fortier, a public affairs officer for the VA in Buffalo, N.Y., said he could not discuss Brown’s case but said, in general, once soldiers leave the National Guard, ”they are no longer entitled” to the enhanced GI Bill benefits.
Brown said he was never told he wasn’t entitled to the benefits and said the VA had not communicated well with him.
”I think this is very unfair for me and all the other soldiers that are in the situation for what we had to sacrifice,” said Brown, who was named Soldier of the Year for his unit in 2004.
Brown said he now realizes he misses the military and his friends in his unit and plans to re-enter the National Guard in the next few months. He will sign up for Officer Candidate School.
”I want to go back as an officer so I can lead,” he said.
On Wednesday, Brown said he was told by Fortier that he could file a waiver listing his household expenses and income for the VA to examine an appeal of the $2,500 bill.
Fortier said the VA looks at waivers filed by veterans on a case-by-case basis, and usually within a few months decides if the amount owed will be reduced or forgiven.
”We get a fair amount of waiver requests,” Fortier said.
Brown said he will file for the waiver but still believes he should not have to repay the money.