Even the best of checklists fall short.
A military daughter from Jacksonville said she tried to follow an education checklist set by the government. Jordan Bigbee's father, Desmund Watson, said the army promised to pay for his daughter's college, but after 18 years of serving in the U.S. Army, he feels the VA is rescinding that promise.
First Coast News first reported on this issue in November, sharing Bigbee's $50,000 college debt that came when the Army canceled her father's GI bill benefits.
The cancelation came at a surprise because Watson's honorable discharge was involuntary. Military paperwork showed Watson had six more months of service obligation to complete when he was notified the military would be cutting him from the force. The three previous years of education benefits the VA paid to send Bigbee to college were cut as well, leaving the then 21-year-old with a mound of unexpected debt.
After the initial story aired, responses on social media suggested Bigbee was not alone.
Several comments came from those claiming an education benefit they thought was guaranteed through the military disappeared due to technicalities.
"To hear the government not have your back like you've had theirs is hurtful," Bigbee said of her father's military service. "I wasn't able to finish. I was actually two classes away from my AA degree."
Bigbee never returned to finish college and has been fighting along with her father to clear her credit.
"You want to help your children any way you can, you want to be able to protect them," Watson said. "It's frustrating. I do believe this can be fixed. I do believe this can be made right."
The initial response from the VA seemed to give a checklist of its own.
Terry Jamison with Veterans Benefits Administration said in a November 9 statement that a dependent would not be responsible to repay the educational assistance benefits that were transferred by a Veteran who is: 1) involuntarily discharged; 2) honorably discharged; and 3) discharged during a reduction in force.
Watson appeared to fit the three-point profile. He confirmed he never wanted to voluntarily leave a career that meant so much to him. His DD-214 confirms his discharge was honorable and it came at a time when nationally 40,000 troops were being cut as part of a force reduction initiative.
However, in a second response from the VA submitted to our sister station, WUSA9, press secretary Curt Cashour suggested Watson's discharge was not part of the official reduction in force. Cashour reiterated Watson's discharge did not meet the exception to their repayment policy.
"To say that you just kicked him out to kick him out, that’s not the truth," Bigbee said.
Watson also disagreed with the VA's statement to media. He acknowledged a reprimand existed on his file from 2010 when he was pulled over for a driving infraction and charged with careless and imprudent driving. After the negative mark, he said he was deployed on two more tours and received good conduct medals and a top secret clearance. He was also given no guidance about the reprimand's possible impact two years later in 2012 when he transferred his G.I. bill to Bigbee, allowing her to begin receiving thousands of dollars in benefits.
At the time of his discharge in 2015, he was aware service members with negative marks would be considered first for personnel cuts. However, Watson told First Coast News his understanding from superiors was that he was being considered for separation as a result of force reshaping.
Army service document creates confusion
With the VA's new response that Watson's honorable discharge was a firing instead of a layoff, the case seemed to be closed. But a document in Watson's own personnel file would raise more questions.
A statement of service on Department of Army letterhead, dated June 2015 lists Watson's type of discharge as a "force reduction" discharge (honorable). The document is signed by Watson's battalion commander.
First Coast News forwarded the document to representatives with the Army and VA but received no response about the contradiction.
"It's been completely different from what they're saying," Bigbee said. "That's the thing with the government, you're never going to have a direct answer."
A public information officer for the Army said Wednesday they could not discuss the specifics due to privacy concerns, and failed to respond to whether Watson could sign a release for the information.
According to military policy, a service member will incur overpayment debt for outstanding benefits if the discharge is due to the quality management program and not part of a force reshaping initiative. No options are available for prorated repayment for those, like Watson, who complete a substantial portion of their obligation.