Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Bill Would Clear Fallen Heroes' VA Debt

By Terry Howell / January 23, 2008

WASHINGTON -- A bill to block the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) from collecting money from the families of fallen servicemembers was introduced by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) this week.

"This bill is about honoring our fallen heroes by treating the families they left behind with dignity and by showing them we mean it when we tell them our nation is truly grateful," said Sen. Hutchison in her January 22, 2008, press release.

Take Action: Tell your public officials how you feel about this issue.

The Senator was alerted to this issue by the VA, which according to current law is required to contact the family for collection if a member of our Armed Forces is killed and owes the VA any outstanding indebtedness. Once a servicemember in these cases is killed, the VA must contact the families of the deceased and ask that they be reimbursed from the estate for that GI bill education payment. To date, the VA has sought to collect over $56,000 from 22 deceased soldiers.

Although the current law does allow the VA Secretary some discretion for waiving certain cases, the bill, dubbed the "Combat Veterans Debt Elimination Act" would remove that discretion and forgive all debts that fall into this category.

The press release also points to cases in Wisconsin, North Carolina, Illinois, Iowa, Connecticut, Nebraska, Colorado, Michigan, Washington, California, New York, Kentucky, Georgia and South Carolina and sites the following three Texas cases:

- A Soldier on his third tour in Iraq was killed by a sniper's bullet and owed the government $389 for an education overpayment. The family paid this debt in full because they believed it was the right thing to do.

- An Army Sergeant who had served in the U.S. Marine Corps before enlisting in the Army attended two different colleges with VA education benefits. After serving one tour of duty in Afghanistan, he was serving his second tour in Iraq when he was killed by a bomb explosion. He owed the VA $2,282 and was survived by a wife and four children. The family paid the debt because they, too, felt it was the right thing to do.

- A Marine reservist who received education assistance to attend Texas A&M University was killed in an explosion in Iraq. The VA informed his mother of his death with a collection letter that said he owed the VA $845, which must be collected from his estate.

The Combat Veterans Debt Elimination Act would relieve grieving families and remove the requirement for the VA to seek collection of such debt. If passed, the law would be retroactive to September 11, 2001.

In an effort to fast track this legislation, Sen. Hutchison requested that the Senate Majority and Minority Leaders bypass the committee process and bring this legislation to the floor before another family suffers the indignity of the current law.

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