With the VA's treatment of veterans benefits under tremendous scrutiny today, one area still flying under the radar is the education of fallen Veterans' children.
More than 15,000 military children have lost a parent over the last 25 years, and often find themselves struggling to figure out how to fund their college education.While the general public believes that there are enough scholarships and aid to go around, government programs do not cover the full cost of college, nor do they reach all the deserving children. Plus, not every surviving family is aware of the help that is available to them. The VA is a valuable resource for these kids, but, according to the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), which provides casework assistance and emotional support to military families, the VA has made it difficult for survivors to truly understand their benefits, so they just give up and pay out of pocket instead.
"There are VA staff who do not know the specific eligibility requirements for survivor education benefits, or what benefits are available to these students," said Ashlynne Haycock, 22, who lost her father, Army Sergeant First Class Jeffrey Haycock, at age 10. When the GI Bill passed in 2008, her mother told her that she would be able to attend any school she wanted because the VA was going to take care of her tuition—but Haycock was told that her father would have to come physically sign it over, and he had already been dead for six years.
“I ended up taking out loans and tried to get additional financial assistance, but was denied because I could not change my filing status halfway through college,” she said. She took more loans, applied for minor scholarships and barely made ends meet. During her senior year, TAPS put Haycock in contact with Children of Fallen Patriots Foundation and they picked up her remaining tuition and paid off her loans.
Children of Fallen Patriots, a nonprofit based out of Jacksonville Beach, Florida, helps thousands of struggling families with navigation assistance and extra funding. Founded by Army Veteran David Kim, the nonprofit helps fund college scholarships for children whose parents were killed in any capacity during the line of duty. Money from COFP can go towards tuition, renting an apartment, books, and other supplies.
Now, Haycock works at TAPS herself, and has helped over 250 survivors access college assistance, sometimes spending hours on the phone helping kids and parents fill out applications.
Even when families do qualify for the various government benefits and other scholarships available, the average “gap” per child is about $30,000 for four years of college.
Jacob Centeno Healy, 24, lost his stepfather, Senior Chief Petty Officer Daniel Richard Healy, at age 15. Before his final deployment, Daniel told Jacob that more than anything, he wanted him to attend college. After his death, Jacob wasn’t sure how he would be able to afford it.
“The VA wouldn’t provide benefits to me because they didn’t recognize me as my dads’ son,” Healy said.
Fallen Patriots reached out to his mother and notified her they would be there for Jacob and his sister, and let them know that when the kids became ready to attend college, they would be taken care of.
Now a program administrator for Fallen Patriots, Healy helps families become of aware of what's available in terms of government scholarships, and what the COPF can offer.
Often, when someone from Fallen Patriots calls a family for the first time, their first reaction, no matter how bad things are, is to say they’re okay and deny help.
“These kids have such a spirit of self-reliance, but they’re living on ramen noodles and don’t have money to buy eyeglasses. Still, they never ask for help,” said Kim. “In America, a lot of people have their hands out, but these are people who have lost everything and don’t want to ask for anything.”
Siblings Stuart and Alexandra Chapin, 26, lost their father, Norman H. Chapin, in 2005 after multiple heart attacks as a result of exposure to Agent Orange, a pesticide used to clear the forests in Vietnam. They didn’t qualify for the VA Fry Scholarship.
“It was just for children of an active duty member of the Armed Forces who has died in the line of duty on or after September 11, 2001,” she said.
Alexandra always loved reading—her father knew she would sneak a book and a flashlight under the covers after lights out, but he purposely looked the other way.
When she was ready to head back to school after caring for her mother, who was diagnosed with cancer just one week after her father’s death, Fallen Patriots “threw out a massive life vest” to her family. They paid off all of her debt, and covered the remaining cost of tuition that scholarships didn’t cover.
"States have passed the legislation and put money aside that isn't being used by these kids because no one has heard of it. In some cases the state had never even created an application for the benefits," Haycock said. Those who have tried to file through the VA, she says, have also been sent in circles and erroneously told that they don’t qualify for the Fry scholarship, which covers tuition for children whose parent died in the line of duty after September 10, 2001.
“There isn't a lot handed to you when your parents die. You deal with funeral and the aftermath, and when Kenzi from Fallen Patriots called me, my mind was blown,” said Chapin. “Within months of our first conversation the paperwork came through. They had paid off thousands of dollars of student debt.”
Kim, who has four kids of his own, started the organization to honor one of the soldiers he served with, who died just days before his first daughter was born.
“I’m sure the last thought these soldiers had before they died was, ‘What’s going to happen to my kid?’ I just want to stand in for that dad or mom they lost and help them accomplish their dreams.”