WASHINGTON — In less than a day, supporters raised more than $400,000 to help cover future college tuition for the children of Sgt. La David T. Johnson, one of four U.S. soldiers killed in Niger earlier this month.
But those three youngsters — including Johnson’s unborn child, due in January — should already be eligible for full tuition costs through the Post-9/11 GI Bill, raising questions about where the money is headed.
The case illustrates both the generosity of the American public in the aftermath of a high-profile military tragedy and also widespread unfamiliarity with how the Department of Defense works.
Many donors to the Johnson GoFundMe page — and similar ones set up in the aftermath of other service members’ deaths — expressed hope that their contributions can avoid looming financial problems facing the family.
“We hope all the money that you receive in this campaign will go to helping you get on your feet and educating your children,” wrote one site visitor.
Congress has already tried to do that. Survivors of troops killed overseas are eligible for a $100,000 death gratuity payout, tax free. That number had been less than $13,000 before lawmakers approved an eightfold increase in 2006.
They also approved broader coverage of the Servicemembers Group Life Insurance program for overseas deployed troops. With a few exceptions — mostly for troops who opt for different life insurance plans — that provides families with $400,000 after a servicemembers’ death.
Grieving families are also eligible to receive military housing stipends for a year after a loved one’s death, and for Tricare for lengthy periods (until age 21 for children, and until remarriage for spouses). The Dependency Indemnity Compensation program for spouses of those who died on active duty also pays out around $1,250 a month, plus another $311 for each dependent child.
And each surviving family member is eligible for education costs through the Marine Gunnery Sergeant John Fry Scholarship, according to Ashlynne Haycock, manager of education support services at the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.
“This scholarship is an amendment of the Post 9/11 GI Bill that provides full tuition, a housing stipend and a book stipend for four years for each eligible dependent child and spouse,” she said.
The education benefits cover the full cost of state universities. Private university tuition for 2017 is capped at around $23,000 a year, although that number rises each year. And the VA Yellow Ribbon program, which is open to survivors, allows additional federal dollars to match contributions from colleges to cover remaining gaps.
Even Johnson’s unborn child will be eligible, thanks to adjustments made in the law in recent years. That may undermine the stated goal of the GoFundMe page, which hopes to set up a scholarship “benefit (Johnson’s) children by providing money towards their college education.”
Organizers behind the fundraising site did not return calls seeking comment. The effort was launched by Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., and her charity the 5000 Role Model of Excellence Project, of which Johnson was a member.
Johnson’s widow, Myeshia, is listed as the beneficiary for the effort. That means that the family should still benefit from any money raised, even if the scholarships aren’t needed.
Such fundraising efforts aren’t a rarity after a military death.
One set up for Army Sgt. Jonathon Hunter, killed in August in Afghanistan, has raised more than $28,000 in recent weeks with the plea that “money should be the last thing (his widow) has to worry about.”
Another one for the parents of Army Sgt. Dillon Baldridge — whom Trump offered a $25,000 check after learning the fallen soldier’s ex-wife received all of the death benefits — has raised about $2,000 in four months.
But the Johnson donation page appears to be one of the most successful. In two days, the site has collected more than $600,000 of a $1 million goal.
Similar fundraisers for the families of the three other soldiers killed in the Niger ambush — Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson, and Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright — have not yet been launched.