Last month, American flags lined streets, parades made their way through small towns, and leaders attended ceremonies to honor our nation’s veterans. In a country that values military service, I never thought that my own service would disqualify me when applying for Department of Veterans Affairs benefits. But, to my surprise, this is exactly what I encountered when I applied for Chapter 35 benefits to help fund my graduate degree.

My dad, Col. Phil Bossert, served in the Air Force for 28 years. He went on to become a command pilot flying over 3,900 hours, including combat operations in Panama and Kuwait. In November 2001, he deployed to Afghanistan and led one of the first units in response to the 9/11 terror attacks. During his third and final deployment to Afghanistan in 2012, he was medically evacuated to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Md., where he was diagnosed with stage IV brain cancer as a result of exposure to toxic burn pits while flying missions during the Global War on Terror. He passed away a year later. I was in my second year at the Air Force Academy.

Ten years later as a captain in the Air Force, I applied for Chapter 35 benefits to help fund my graduate studies. Chapter 35 benefits provide education assistance to dependents affected by war, such as spouses and children of service members killed in the line of duty, permanently disabled, or who died due to service-related injuries. Although I am entitled to these benefits due to my father’s service, I am disqualified from receiving them due to my own service.

Current restrictions set by the VA bar active-duty spouses and children from receiving these benefits who may otherwise qualify. Instead, these service members must leverage Tuition Assistance or Chapter 33 Benefits (the GI Bill) to cover the cost of higher education. According to the Department of Education, the average cost of attending a private four-year institution rose by 14% between 2011 and 2021. The average amount of grants or scholarships rarely covers these expenses. Dependents of service members who elect to use their GI Bill benefits forfeit the opportunity to transfer these benefits to their dependents.

While service members can currently leverage several programs to help fund this increased demand for education, a select few are barred from receiving full benefits due to current restrictions. It is worth noting that despite the current service-wide recruiting crisis, children of service members continue to make up a good portion of recruits. Children who lost a parent in combat or from service-related injuries, like myself, are still likely to follow in their parent’s footsteps and are thus more likely to be disadvantaged by this current restriction.

Chapter 35 benefits provide dependents $1,488 per month for a maximum of 45 months or a total of $66,960. According to the Department of Defense Casualty Analysis System, 5,461 service members died in combat during Overseas Contingency Operations beginning in October 2001. Hypothetically, if each service member had an active-duty spouse and two children who chose to also serve their country — thereby qualifying for Chapter 35 benefits — it would cost the VA $1.10 billion to extend these benefits, or 0.34% of the 2024 requested budget. Of note, the 2024 budget was a 5.4% increase above the fiscal year 2023 enacted levels.

During his recent confirmation hearing, Air Force Gen. C.Q. Brown Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted that the military will need strategically minded warfighters who can demonstrate critical thinking skills and requisite knowledge to be successful in great power competition. Similarly, Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall announced that advanced degrees would be visible to certain promotion boards, noting that the shift to strategic competition will require an increased level of knowledge — “We must also have leaders with expertise in the cultures of our potential adversaries. Such expertise and associated critical thinking skills are developed from many sources and experiences, including advanced academic degree programs.”

The secretary of veteran affairs should act now to lift the restriction and extend VA Chapter 35 benefits to active-duty spouses and children who qualify for these entitlements. Dependents of service members who paid the ultimate sacrifice should not be penalized for their continued service, especially at a time when the military and national security environment demand critical thinking developed through higher education.

Capt. Stephanie Bossert is an information operations officer in the Air Force, 2016 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and graduate student at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. The views and opinions presented here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense.

The Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C

The Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C (Stars and Stripes)

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