A young woman who graduated from Flagler College with funds from her stepfather's military service G.I. bill now owes nearly $40,000 plus interest.
Alysia Leon said she started losing up to 25 percent over her paycheck per pay period this year from a VA wage garnishment.
The Post 9/11 GI bill program gave active service members the option to receive education benefits if they complete a required number of years in the service. Military members could transfer the benefits to spouses and dependents.
Leon's stepfather Patrick Marsh Sharp served 14 years and 8 months in the U.S. Navy, according to military release documents provided to First Coast News by Leon.
"He devoted his life to the country and we did too as a family," Leon said.
She said an unexpected weight assessment for her military stepfather in 2013 changed everything.
According to Sharp's DD-214 release paperwork, his discharge from the military was honorable and the reason for the separation was "weight control failure."
Leon said after a physical, her 6-foot stepfather weighed in at 221 and a body composition assessment (BCA) of 22.75 percent. The limit in 2013 for Navy sailors was 22 percent. Leon said the test failure led to the Navy forcing a discharge.
The education benefits paying for Leon's Flagler education dissolved and in 2014 she learned the VA was demanding she pay back the thousands of dollars in funding she thought had been taken care of.
The VA, per its privacy policies, cannot release specific details about a service member's discharge. However, a 2016 letter from the VA provided by Leon says Sharp separated from the Navy voluntarily three years shy of his required obligation. "This is why you were assessed a debt for the entire amount paid in benefits," the letter reads.
For Leon, the mounds of debt even made her question whether it made sense to take an environmental job she loved away from home in Puerto Rico post-Hurricane Maria.
"You start to wonder what is the point of doing all of this if I'm going to work to be in debt all the time," Leon said. "I knew I couldn't be the only one out there that was going through this."
Since November, First Coast News has been investigating the military's policy on dependents of service people who are asked to leave the force before finishing the G.I. bill's required term.
Jordan Bigbee of Jacksonville's father was discharged from the Army just months shy of his obligation deadline. Though a letter on Army letterhead said Bigbee's father was discharged due to a reduction in the force, the VA said the move was considered voluntary. Bigbee lost previously issued education benefits. She still owes over $50,000.
Dick Aquino, a Volunteer Veteran Service Officer in Jacksonville said he sees the situation often.
Aquino works with veterans to navigate a sometimes complicated benefits system. He said "honorable" discharges do not mean benefits will not be curtailed. However, he encouraged dependents to keep trying to appeal if they feel the benefits are not owed.
Meanwhile, Leon said she plans to keep fighting what she calls a mistake. In 2015 the Navy changed its weight requirement policy to a body fat limit that would not have disqualified Sharp if it had been in effect in 2013.
Leon is eligible for an appeal. She said she plans to seek pro bono legal help.
"We serve too, our family is gone most of the time, it's painful," said Leon. "The VA needs a complete overhaul of how they do business in some aspects. The world needs to know what's going on."
First Coast News sent an open records request to the VBA on June 20 requesting the number of dependents paying back GI bill benefits but has not yet received a response.