LSA student loses transferred GI bill, faces 20k and growing debt

Sunday, November 17, 2019 - 5:48pm

LSA junior Paige Dotson with her father Russell Dotson, who served in the U.S. Navy for 22 years.

LSA junior Paige Dotson with her father Russell Dotson, who served in the U.S. Navy for 22 years. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Paige Dotson

LSA junior Paige Dotson, a child of a U.S. Navy veteran, was only able to afford college because she was eligible for benefits under the Post-9/11 GI Bill as the dependent of a veteran. But two years ago, her benefits were unexpectedly revoked, leaving her $20,000 in debt, the Chicago Sun-Times originally reported on Nov. 8th.

Paige’s father, Russell Dotson, served in the U.S. Navy for 22 years, both reserve and active duty, and was deployed to war zones six times. When he initially enlisted, he gave the military a deduction from his salary towards the Montgomery GI bill, which covered a college bachelor’s degree. The transition to a Post-9/11 GI bill was signed into law in 2008 with an extended applicability to pay for graduate degrees or trade school and be transferable to dependants. 

According to Russell, this was a critical change for many officers. However, for him and others who had served in the long-term, Dotson had to re-enlist for another four years to qualify. He did so with the intent to transfer these benefits equally between his son and Paige. 

“It seems a little wrongheaded to go to somebody who has already served 16, 18 years, and say ‘hey, we’re changing this GI bill you already paid for, the one that you gave us $1,200 for, to this new GI bill,” he said. “However, I know that you’ve served 16, 15, 10 years, we’re going to make you serve four more, and then you’ll be able to transfer it to your kids.”

Paige enrolled at DePaul University in 2017 after her father finished the four-year commitment, excited to explore life past her hometown of Birch Run, Michigan. She immediately used the GI Bill to enroll in the school and subsidize the high living cost in Chicago. When she didn’t receive her living stipend in the second quarter of her freshman year, she called the Veteran Affairs National Office and was told she was no longer eligible to receive benefits and would have to repay $20,000 to the government, including interest. She received student support services to enroll in the next quarter of her freshman year but took out extra loans to continue her sophomore year. 

“On the military end, they said we gave you all this money, you’re no longer eligible retroactively so you owe all that money back,” Paige said. “On the front end, DePaul was like, you can’t register for classes, you don’t have the funding.”

Russell technically owed an additional 89 days to his official service time in order to receive the benefits. Since he was a reservist, serving one weekend per month, this meant only needing 6 additional days of weekend service. The Board for Correction of Naval Records officials could change his retirement date in their records to make him eligible again or waive his retirement to allow him to complete the six days of service. However, they reviewed and rejected his request, which Rusell said was an arbitrary decision. 

Russell Dotson on duty.

Russell Dotson on duty. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Paige Dotson

So, Paige transferred to the University of Michigan, where she had received scholarships and could benefit from a lower cost of living. She said she is still harassed by private agencies, to whom the government sold portions of the debt, and carries the emotional weight of her past. 

“My family really struggled, and my dad, he got deployed again, and again, and again,” she said. “And then it was like now, the opportunity to go to college after the emotional and financial sacrifices, and then that’s taken away, and now I owe money back when I’m just trying to do my best. I’m just trying to get an education; I’m just trying to be a first-generation college student at the University of Michigan. All I did was show up to class.”

With a lack of success in contacting various Navy bureaus, Paige and her father have both contacted several representatives to find support, which, according to the two, have been most effective after the Chicago Sun-Times article. Paige said a highlight was when Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-MI, retweeted her story, a traction which has motivated her to reach out further to local representatives. 

“Ultimately, moving forward, I’m going to be leveraging my coverage to try to gain congressional and senatorial support to try to drive change,” she said. “And hopefully along the way, I have a GoFundMe page set up to try to have resources for myself and other families, as much as I can contribute to them, so that in the event that this doesn’t change, it’s just not done.” 

Paige has also started a GoFundMe page for other children of veterans who have had their GI bill rescinded and for herself finding debt-relief grants.

“I feel very privileged that I was on the face of this issue, it feels like there’s a lot of responsibility to move it forward, and that’s absolutely what I plan to do,” Paige Dotson said. “Knowing that there are other families experiencing it, now it’s almost like a fight for me. This is something that I absolutely have to more forward with.” 

Engineering senior John Iacovetta is the vice president of Student Veterans of America’s University chapter, and has been following the story closely. Iacovetta was himself in the Navy for 10 years and is waiting to use his GI bill for graduate school. 

“My opinion is that this is an admin issue, and that it’s a career counseling issue. Every navy unit is supposed to have a career counsellor and they’re supposed to help guide you through your navy career, and help you with advancement, retention and then general opportunities to really enhance your career,” Iacovetta said. 

Iacovetta said he believes this is an issue of the Navy’s administration and career counseling office whose job is to aid with advancement in the industry.

“Additionally, they’re supposed to help you with your transition out of the military, and the other thing that they help you with is transitioning over your benefits to your dependents. My experience with career counsellors has been that they are not knowledgeable about this last subset, being transitioning out of the military or transferring your benefits.”

Iacovetta worked as a career counselor himself for a year as a reservist, and said the job was difficult, largely because of the overly bureaucratic system. 

“It was hell because people ask you all these questions about, literally these are questions that are affecting the rest of their lives, and more often than not I did not know what the answers were,” he said. “But one thing about me is that I have no problem just telling people I don’t know the answer, right, and we’re going to go off to find the answer from somebody who does, but I think there are plenty of people who do not prescribe to that mindset, and are willing to just rattle off whatever answer gets them through the day.” 

Russell, however, emphasized there are many entities involved, and reflected on how he could have verified the dates early on to avoid the mistake. 

“I’m not going to sit here and put every bit of blame for this on the military. One of the military standard answers is what the military does like to say is your career, your responsibility,” he said. “I would tell somebody to trust but verify if somebody is telling them that they’ve completed an obligation, or that they’ve met all the requirements. I would recommend that they go talk to somebody else as well, just for a second opinion before they’ve made any life changes based on that.”

Despite partial admission of this mistake on his end, Russell still has his GI bill, but has no plans to use the money himself. His family is still holding out to hopefully fix the mistake. Until then, they continue to reach out for help. 

“One of the things I’ve been pointing out is my GI bill is not gone, it’s still sitting right where it always was,” Russell said. “I could go use this GI bill for myself today if I wanted to. I’m not asking for money. The money is already sitting there. I’m simply asking to be able to transfer the money to my children.” 

Meanwhile, Paige has utilized the resources at the University to finish her degree, thankful especially for the support from faculty. 

“Equally among both schools, the faculty have been probably the most crucial piece of my success,” she said. “I do think the resources provided on campus, either through CAPS, or UHS, are so important, using those tools have helped me learn how to kind of deal with it on more a survival-based level. How do you just get through the now, and then we’ll worry about that stuff in a minute.”