Virginia's Broken Promise to Military Families

Glenn Youngkin
Then-Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin, center, speaks with Army veterans Russell Claar, left, and Wayne Robinson after a rally in Fredericksburg, Va., Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

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Virginia made my family and thousands of others a promise, that if a Virginia service member dies while serving their country or is seriously disabled, their kids and spouse will still be able to afford an education.

Now, in the largest rollback of veterans benefits in the history of the commonwealth, it has broken that promise. With no planning and no warning, Virginia has gone from being one of the best states in the nation for Gold Star and disabled veteran families to one of the worst.

The Virginia Military Survivors and Dependents Education Program (VMSDEP) was a program that provided eight semesters of education to spouses and dependents in Gold Star families, as well as those of 90% to 100% totally and permanently disabled veterans, as determined by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. It was, by design, a fantastic benefit specifically created to lure veteran families like mine and our spending power to put roots down in the state.

Just six months ago in its annual report, the Virginia Department of Veterans Services highlighted the program as aiding the agency in its biggest goal of increasing the number of veterans who choose to permanently reside in Virginia. In that report, the department wrote it hoped to increase the number of participants in VMSDEP from the current 6,120 students to 9,000 by the end of Gov. Glenn Youngkin's term in 2025.

Why? Well, likely because of some sense of patriotic duty, but also because Virginia is absolutely dependent on Defense Department spending and veterans' pensions have a $9.5 billion economic impact statewide.

That's also why the state, in an effort to be "the most military-friendly state in the nation" started the VMSDEP program in 1996, and then expanded and affirmed it in 2006, 2019 and 2021. In fact, VMSDEP is older than most of the people using it. We weren't naïve to assume the state was good for it.

But then, just three weeks ago, the Virginia General Assembly abruptly declared VMSDEP to be too expensive and gutted it, with Youngkin signing the decision into law.

For those of us who accepted the state's offer of free college tuition for our children and uprooted our families, bought homes, changed jobs and started our lives over here in the Old Dominion, it feels like a bait and switch.

Now, Youngkin has indicated that he thinks the state should repeal the changes to VMSDEP he just approved, but it's far from clear whether Virginia's legislators are willing to do that. While they hem and haw, students across the state and their parents have no idea how they will pay for an education that they thought was already guaranteed.

As is true for most military families, our decision on where to put down roots after military life felt impossible. Years of the Army telling us where to live had made us flexible. My husband is from Virginia, and all his family live here. I'm from Tennessee, and that's where all my relatives live. We had enjoyed life in Colorado, Florida and North Carolina, and a lot of our friends ended up in Texas and California. We debated where to settle every night. We researched. We made spreadsheets. We drew out our options on a whiteboard.

No one gets rich from serving in the military, and my work history is as haphazard as most military spouses, which is to say we don't have college savings for our children. And, after spending their childhoods seeing their father leave for war nearly every year and seeing the lifelong damage service and war did to him, we did not want our children to have to enlist to go to college. They have already served our country. Their patriotic debt has been paid.

Every state we considered had a lot going for it. Florida, Texas and California all offered some college funding for our children. My home state of Tennessee allows its high school graduates, military or not, to attend two years of community college totally free. But, because my husband has a Department of Veterans Affairs' disability rating of 100%, Permanent and Total, Virginia, through VMSDEP, offered to educate our three children in its excellent public universities tuition-free. We took the deal.

Now, with our oldest having just completed his freshman year of college and our two younger children in high school and middle school; with us having bought a home, forced our kids to start a new life yet again, and having paid all the taxes that Virginia charges us, the state has decided to renege.

Make no mistake, Americans: This is a test case. If veterans' benefits are on the chopping block in Virginia -- the state that gets more defense dollars than any other ($62.7 billion) and where defense, at 9.7%, makes up the largest contributor to its economy, veterans in every state should be on high alert. Other states are undoubtedly watching. If Virginia can get away with breaking its promises to Gold Star families and disabled veterans, veterans' benefits won't be safe anywhere.

-- Rebekah Sanderlin is a freelance writer and the spouse of a retired soldier. Her work has appeared in many times, among other publications. She lives with her family in Virginia Beach, Virginia. 

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