SAN FRANCISCO - Marine Corps reservist Todd Bowers was half-way through his degree in Middle Eastern Studies at George Washington University when the Pentagon pulled him out of school and sent him on two combat tours to Iraq.
When he returned, he found his student loans had been sent to collection.
"I had notified my lenders that I was leaving on a combat deployment," he told OneWorld. "Something went awry while I was gone and [when I returned] I had tremendous amounts of letters saying: 'You owe this money.'"
Eventually, Bowers said he was able to get the difficulty "squared away, but the damage had already been done and my credit history was ruined."
That wasn't Bowers' only problem.
"When I returned from a twelve-month deployment on my second tour, I was given just two weeks to complete my finals," he said. "I hadn't seen the course work in nearly twelve months."
So Bowers dropped out of school. He now works as government affairs director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) -- the first and largest member-organization for veterans of the United States' recent wars.
On Thursday, the group put forward a new bill in Washington, which is sponsored by Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Congresswoman Susan Davis of Southern California. The Veterans Education Tuition Support (VETS) Act wouldn't increase the amount of money veterans get for college, but it would close loopholes in the GI bill that make finishing a degree more difficult.
The VETS Act would require colleges to refund tuition for service members sent overseas, cap student loan interest payments at 6 percent while the student is deployed, and extend the period of time during which a student-soldier may re-enroll after returning from abroad.
The bill was written by Patrick Campbell, a former student body president at the University of California-Berkeley, who was sucked into a maelstrom of bureaucracy after serving as a combat medic in Iraq with the Louisiana National Guard in 2005.
"I spent my first semester back at law school exchanging over 40 letters with my student loan lender trying to stop their harassing phone calls saying that I was defaulting on my student loan payments," he said in comments posted on IAVA's Web site. "According to my lender, due to my deployment, I had used up all of my permissible grace period."
"Unlike my non-veteran classmates, I will be required to start repaying my loans the day after I graduate," Campbell added. "I was told the only way I could be restored to my pre-deployment status was to rewrite the laws. So I spent my last year of law school finding ways to change the law to help returning student-soldiers."
According to the U.S. Department of Education, veterans are less likely to graduate from college than students who have never served in the military. The Department's most recent data shows just 3 percent of veterans who entered a four-year college program in 1995 graduated by 2001, compared to a 30 percent overall graduation rate.
Currently there are about 90,000 U.S. military reservists who are enrolled in college and about 25,000 of them have been deployed at least once to either Iraq or Afghanistan.
The bill is likely to receive a positive response from university administrators.
"Anything that would help the students be able to pick up their studies if they're interrupted, or to begin their studies if they hadn't done it before -- sounds like those are all good things," said Jo Volkert, assistant vice president for enrollment management at San Francisco State University.
Volkert said veterans may believe university administrators are hostile when they return from a deployment. In fact, she says, they legally have very little wiggle room in how they treat their students.
"Basically the rules are dictated by the education code we have to follow," she said. "So if this is something that would cause the education code to be more lenient to students who are deployed, that's positive."
Veterans groups are likewise optimistic about the bill's chances for passage. They believe that a bill that costs tax payers very little money while helping veterans finish their degrees should have a relatively easy time clearing both houses of Congress before being sent to the president.
Copyright © 2007 OneWorld.net.