At the time, the deal seemed irresistible to Eric Hickam: Give six years to the Army, a recruiter told him in 2003, and you can get a $50,000 "kicker" — the Army College Fund.
When his payments started coming last fall, his first year at Columbia University in New York City, the amount fell far short of what Hickam had anticipated. He thought the college fund was a bonus on top of his GI Bil, worth about $35,000 at the time. The Army says the $50,000 figure was a total of all benefits. Last month, it denied Hickam's appeal seeking $50,000 more than what he's receiving for his GI Bill.
"I essentially did six years based on a lie," says Hickam, 26, who served four tours in Iraq.
Hickam is one in a new wave of veterans who are discovering that their Army College Fund is worth far less than they thought when they enlisted. The Army has acknowledged, in at least 91 cases, that enlistment agreements involving the fund were "blatantly misleading" for more than a decade, a review of publicly available military records show.
Even so, it denied appeals from veterans who felt misled. With help from Congress, which in 2009 created a one-year opportunity for veterans to seek relief, the Army paid out $2.18 million to 86 applicants, or about $25,000 each. The Army has since denied additional appeals. And no one knows how many of nearly 140,000 young men and women who signed up for the Army College Fund between April 1, 1993, and Sept. 30, 2004, either have given up or have yet to discover the discrepancy.
"It's sad that it takes an act of Congress to provide Army student veterans with their rightfully earned benefits," says Michael Dakduk, executive director of Student Veterans of America, a coalition of student veteran groups on more than 500 campuses. "The Army needs to recognize that this is still a problem."
The discrepancy has to do with how the Army College Fund, established in 1982 to attract college-bound youth into the military, is calculated. According to claims available online that were filed by soldiers as far back as 2000, some servicemembers believed the Army College Fund was an extra benefit, on top of the standard education benefit provided by the GI Bill. In multiple cases, an Army review board told them the Army College Fund instead reflects the combined total amount the veteran will get.
The Army "paid some" claims before May 2006 but "does not have reliable data" on how many or the amounts paid, Army spokeswoman Diana Dawa says.
Paul Mackiewicz, 29, is one of the lucky ones. In 2009, the Army sent him a letter stating that he could apply to "renew consideration" of his case. A few months later, he got a check for $28,800.
By then, Mackiewicz had dropped out of Kennesaw State University in Georgia, and enrolled in a less expensive trade school. He used "a big chunk" of the check to pay off his credit card and moved to New York state, where he graduated this spring from Roberts Wesleyan College.
All told, he says, it took him nine years and a lot of frustration to earn his bachelor's degree. Had his recruiter explained the Army College Fund more clearly, he says, "I wouldn't have enlisted. … The Army ended up costing me."
Army veteran Ron Kness, who blogs about military benefits, says a beefier GI Bill passed in 2009 should lessen the sting for those who qualify. The duped veterans are "actually going to come out equal to or better than (they) would have otherwise," he says.
Hickam, who gets the new benefit, says it's not enough to close the gap. He has already racked up $10,000 in student loans, and expects to owe four times that by the time he graduates.
David Choi, 30, who enlisted in 2002 and alternates between working full time and going to school, says his recruiter made the $50,000 Army College Fund his main selling point.
"He continued to dangle it in front of my face like a carrot on a stick," says Choi, who separated from the Army in 2006 and enrolled in Santa Monica Community College in 2009. UCLA graduate student Dani Molina, 29, recalls that when he questioned the language about the Army College Fund in 1999, "my recruiter said not to worry about it."
Like Hickam, Choi and Molina say they were surprised that they got less than what they expected, but never sought a claim under the 2009 law because no one told them about it. Dawa says the Army notified vets whose claims had been denied and posted a notice on its website. Last week, Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., who proposed the 2009 legislation, introduced a new bill that would again allow the Army to correct "erroneous" amounts, this time from 2013 to 2015.
Rick Jahnkow, of the non-profit Project on Youth and Non-Military Opportunities, which conducts efforts to prevent military recruiters from enlisting young people, says Congress could do even more good by requiring military recruiters to provide "very clear statements" of what servicemembers can expect when they enlist.
Nicholas Olson, 29, a senior at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, says he has given up expecting the Army to compensate him and has focused instead on fighting for rights for veterans who are disabled or homeless.
"I'm able to get by on what I have and am thankful for that," he says. "While I do feel cheated, I feel almost selfish asking for more money when there are others who get nothing and are on the streets."