BROKEN PROMISE: Military daughter owes $50,000 after dad's G.I. Bill canceled

For nearly three years, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs paid for Jordan Bigbee's college costs, thanks to her father's G.I. Bill. When he was honorably discharged in 2015, the VA not only stopped paying, but it demanded Bigbee pay every penny back.

A military vet's daughter says the U.S. Government canceled her father's G.I. Bill, despite him being honorably discharged during massive Army cuts. None

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - When Jordan Bigbee was in high school, she made a promise to herself that if she went to college, she wouldn't accumulate student loans.

Knowing about her goal, her father, now-retired U.S. Army Sgt. Desmond Watson, transferred his Post-9/11 G.I. Bill to her when she turned 17 in 2012 to help take the weight off of her shoulders.

In Florida, 2015 graduates owed an average of $20,193 in student loan debt, according to The Project on Student Debt. In the U.S., that average is about $30,100.

Five years later, Bigbee said she is now drowning in student debt due to what she calls a broken promise from Uncle Sam.

Transferring Dad's G.I. Bill

After Watson transferred his G.I. Bill to Bigbee, both were under the impression that she was set when it came to paying for college.

“When you get the news that someone can pay for your entire college, you're not worrying about anything else," Bigbee said. "I felt safe."

The Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, which was established in August of 2009, is a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) administered program that pays for college courses or on-the-job training for active military members. Military members could transfer it to spouses and dependents.

According to the VA, members who have served six years in the military are eligible, but must sign an additional four years of service at the time of transfer, which is what Watson said he did for his daughter in 2012.

“The plan was go through school on his G.I. bill and then complete whatever degree that I had to complete to get a better life,” Bigbee said as she recollected her goals.

After, Bigbee set out to California and attended a Santa Monica community college for three years. She said she took several classes in forensic science, psychology and sociology. She told First Coast News that her goal was to work and help people.

When it came to paying for tuition, Bigbee received regular statements from the VA. Each would say “you are entitled to receive 100 percent of benefits.”

Bigbee was a carefree and debt-free college student… until 2015.

Massive Army Cuts & Loss of Benefits

In 2015, the U.S. Army began cutting 40,000 soldiers with the goal of reducing forces to 450,000 active duty members by the end of 2018, as well as 17,000 civilian workers, according to USA Today. It was projected that the cuts would save $7 billion over four years.

Of those 40,000 soldiers, Watson was also cut from the Armed Services. He left with honorable discharge, just six months away from not only completing 18 years in the military, but also six months shy of completing four years that were required for signing over his G.I. Bill to his daughter.

“It’s a lot,” Bigbee said. “It’s a lot to deal with and as far as my dad, he’s given them so many years and he had three years left of his retirement and six months left of his obligation. So, I feel like it’s a little unjust in a way.”

Despite being honorably discharged and under the impression that he was able to keep his benefits, the VA said it would no longer pay for Bigbee’s tuition. On top of that, the VA also wanted back every penny it paid for her schooling over the previous three years – an amount that totaled more than $40,000 not including fees and interest.

"When that happened, it left me no choice but to come back home," Bigbee said. "[With] $50,000 of debt being held over my head at 21."

The Aftermath

According to the VA's website, veterans who were honorably discharged may be eligible for the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill. 

The VA acknowledged that the circumstances regarding Watson's discharge was beyond his control, however, in hearing decision documents, the VA said she was "still required to repay this debt."

A representative with the Veterans Benefits Administration told First Coast News in a statement: 

"A dependent would not be responsible to repay the educational assistance benefits that were transferred by a Veteran who is involuntarily honorably discharged during a reduction in force.  A Veteran who is involuntarily discharged as a result of a reduction in force is considered to have completed the service agreement that allowed the transferor to participate in the transferability program."

In Bigbee's case, however, the representative said she still owes the debt.

First Coast New has reached out to the Department of Defense for further explanation and is waiting on a response.

"It's tough," said private attorney Gary Beard. "It's like anytime one signs a contract, whether it's a mortgage on a house or buying a car, payments aren't made, something happens, it's repossessed or foreclosed. This was a very similar situation."

Beard, who is a retired Army general, said the Army has been exploring G.I. Bill options for those who leave service involuntarily like Watson. However, there's nothing written in the books yet, Beard said.

"He's just shy of six months out of a four-year obligation but all or nothing? That's the policy?" Beard said. "

Beard said an option the Army could explore is only making dependents like Bigbee responsible for a portion of the debt to make the process more fair.

Until then, the debt-free life that Bigbee tried to build has been overhauled by the unexpected debt she now has to pay back.

"It affects everything... car loans, home," she said. "I was at $40,000, but now I"m at $50,000 because of the increase."

As the interest on her payments build, her education remains on hold while Watson and Bigbee hope there's still a better answer.

"If there are a lot of people that are signing away, wanting to retire to provide for their family, how do you know if this is going to happen to you or not?" Bigbee said. "How do you know if this is going to happen to your dependents or not?"

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