A common misconception is that any veteran who wants a college education can finance it through G.I. Bill. But sadly, this isn’t so. Both the old version and the new, post 9/11 one exclude certain education expenses and neither applies to student loan debt accrued before servicemen and women entered the military.
So the Chicago-based nonprofit Leave No Veteran Behind is offering a “Retroactive Scholarship” that has already helped 10 veterans pay off their student loan debt and get back on track toward productive post-military lives.
One of the first beneficiaries is Delaina Conour, who was attending college when the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 spurred her to enlist in the Army. During training, she suffered a back injury and was eventually medically discharged, according to the Christian Science Monitor.
Delaina’s husband is a disabled veteran, and in 2006, they had a daughter with Down syndrome who has undergone 12 surgeries. The overwhelming medical expenses, coupled with her preexisting student loan debt, was too much. “We ended up forced into bankruptcy and ended up losing our home because of medical bills,” Conour tells Hayley Fox of Take Part.
Their bankruptcy declaration didn’t clear student loan debt, however, leaving the family with $15,000 worth of debt. But fortunately, Leave No Veteran Behind stepped up and covered Conour’s $10,000 portion of it. “I didn’t even know help like this existed,” Delaina says.
Every year, Leave No Veteran Behind’s scholarship committee meets to review applications. They give priority to veterans suffering hardships — including unemployment and medical difficulties. The committee selects several and pays their outstanding student loan debt off in full.
In exchange for paying off student loan debts, Leave No Veteran Behind also asks the vets to commit to 100 to 400 hours of community service “that leverages their military skills, civilian education and lack of indebtedness to help solve the most pressing issues facing their communities,” according to the nonprofit’s website.
Veterans Roy Sartin and Eli Williamson are the founders of Leave No Veteran Behind. Both struggled with student loan debt and unemployment when they returned from service in Iraq and Afghanistan. So in 2009, they started the nonprofit that they wished had existed for them.
So far, the organization has paid off almost $150,000 in student loan debt. By getting the word out about their efforts, Sartin and Williamson hope to eventually help 60 to 70 veterans a year, removing one big stressor as these soldiers transition to civilian life.
MORE: This Nonprofit is Making Sure Kids of Fallen Heroes Can Go To College