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Fort Eustis soldier pushes for change to GI Bill

NEWPORT NEWS, Va — In August 2010, Sgt. 1st Class Angela Dees sent her stepson off to college, a move made possible because she transferred her benefits to him under the G.I. Bill.

Or that's what she thought.

Halfway through the semester, Christopher hadn't received any money. Dees stretched her credit card to pay his living expenses, bus fare and other bills. She was confident the G.I. Bill benefits would come through because the Defense Department had OK'd the transfer.

In November, the Department of Veterans Affairs said the money wasn't coming.

It didn't matter that DoD had endorsed the move. The VA administered the program, and it had a different definition of eligible children. Dees had sole legal custody of Christopher Webb, a stepchild from a previous marriage. The VA considered him a ward, and under its rules he wouldn't get a dime to pay for school.

Dees, now stationed at Fort Eustis, had not only maxed out her credit cards, she was on the hook for thousands of dollars in college tuition and fees she never intended to pay.

"I freaked out," she said.

Congressional action

Dees found herself caught between Defense and the VA, two agencies with different definitions of an eligible child. She has now convinced a congressman in her home state of Illinois to sponsor a bill to clarify the language, because hundreds of other service members could find themselves blindsided.

The GI Education Benefits Fairness Act would extend GI Bill benefits to wards and foster children. It is co-sponsored by Rep. Bill Foster, D-Ill., and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash. and will be up for consideration after the holiday break.

Groups supporting the legislation include the Military Officers Association of America, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Student Veterans of America, National Military Family Association and the Foster Parent Association of America.

The military family association got behind the bill after the congressman approached the group, said Eileen Huck, deputy director in government relations. The association wants to see this unusual situation resolved.

"In this family's case, the young man was considered a dependent, but he was not technically her child," Huck said.

It has taken a few years for mother and son to straighten out their lives. Dees has been stationed at Fort Eustis for two years, where she instructs young soldiers studying to be helicopter mechanics. Christopher will enter the University of Wisconsin in January and plans to major in sociology.

'Owed that to him'

Dees enlisted in the Army in 1998. At the time, she was married and Christopher was her stepson. After a divorce, she went to court and obtained sole legal custody of the boy, raising him from a 2-year-old into young adulthood. She never formally adopted him.

Christopher relocated constantly to keep up with his mother's military career and adapted well, maintaining good grades as he adjusted to different school systems.

Fast forward to 2010. Christopher graduated third in his class from a U.S. Defense Department high school in Germany. Dees, who by then had been serving her country for 12 years, planned to leave the Army and wanted to transfer her G.I. Bill benefits to him

In order to transfer the benefits, the military required her to have at least four years left on her Army contract. So Dees dropped her plans and reenlisted indefinitely, rearranging her own life so Christopher could attend the University of Illinois at Chicago.

"I didn't mind, because it would have benefited him," she said. "I felt like I owed that to him after he followed me around."

When the plan came crashing down in November, mother and son were in a tight spot. She was still in Germany and didn't have the money to buy a plane ticket to get to the U.S. Christopher immediately dropped out of school. He got a job at a Subway to help his mother get a flight home. Within a month, he was managing the place, she said.

Appeals to the VA proved fruitless, and she had no idea where to turn until meeting Foster.

"I have explained this story over a hundred times, guaranteed," she said.

There was one more shock to endure. The University of Illinois, which never received its money, took her to court for $30,000, throwing in late fees and legal costs for good measure.

"I got in contact with them and explained the situation – how can you hold him responsible for this? They reversed the late fees and lawyer fees," she said.

Dees is making good on the rest of the obligation, repaying a base cost of about $13,000. Christopher managed to secure grants and loans to finance his way into the University of Wisconsin, but it's taken them from 2010 until now to recover..

And while the VA doesn't define Christopher as her son, she begs to differ.

"I think I'm his mom," she said. "I've had him since he was two years old. I've earned that."
 

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