Tammy McCracken is supposed to be helping her 16-year-old daughter tour colleges this month, but “she’s looking at the campuses and all I can look at are the expenses.”
Her 19-year-old son is already attending Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, thanks to his father’s post-9/11 GI Bill benefits. But when Col. David McCracken died n 2011 of brain cancer related to an earlier deployment to the Middle East, it left their family with a single income and a host of confusion surrounding his military benefits.
Under current law, the children of a service member who dies on active duty are eligible for full college tuition and a living stipend under the John David Fry Scholarship program, a generous benefit recognizing their families’ sacrifice and stress.
But the McCracken children aren’t eligible for it, because their father was a member of the Army Reserves when he died. Although his injuries were tied to toxic exposure during an active duty deployment, his symptoms didn’t show until months later. Guardsmen and reservists are held in a different category due to language in the federal code authorizing the scholarship.
“He was in the military for 30 years,” Tammy McCracken said. “We always felt part of that community. We never felt like we weren’t a full part of it until after he died.”
Advocates are pushing for a congressional fix to the problem this session.
“(These families’) service and sacrifice is no different than the service and sacrifice of those serving on active duty,” said Ashlynne Haycock, deputy director for policy at the Tragedy Assistance Program For Survivors.
“While most benefits are equal for their survivors, the education benefits are not. It is time to make sure their survivors are afforded the same access to the Fry Scholarship as their active duty counterparts."
This week, lawmakers are proposing a legislative fix to the problem, inserting language in the scholarship eligibility to include children and spouses of guardsmen and reservists who die from a service-connected disability within four years of leaving active-duty status.
The measure, sponsored in the House by Reps. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., and Mike Levin, D-Calif., will be up for discussion before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee this morning. In a statement, both lawmakers said the move is “the least we can do to honor their sacrifice.”
While the issue only affects a few hundred families, the difference between receiving the educational benefits and being shut out entirely can be life changing.
Brittany Tipps, a freshman at Texas A&M University-Commerce, lost her father to suicide in 2010. Texas National Guard Spc. Anthony Tipps has returned from a deployment to Iraq just a few months earlier, but his death was not considered an active-duty event because of the time that had passed.
“To me, I just always thought he had served in the Army,” she said. “I never really saw any difference.”
Over the last year Tipps has cobbled together a host of state and federal benefits to cover most — but not all — of her college costs. She said keeping up with all the required paperwork and deadlines is “hectic,” but she is appreciative that other support systems are available.
“It just all would have been so much easier if the Fry scholarship were an option for us,” she said.
No cost estimate has yet been calculated for the bill. As with past efforts to change military and veterans education benefits, that could be a key sticking point for the effort in the months ahead.
As they advocate for the change, McCracken will press on with the college tours with her daughter, and Tipps will continue her studies in Texas. She’s also planning on working with TAPS this summer on a host of legislative lobbying efforts, connected to her political science major.
“Going through this has definitely sparked my interest in the topic,” Tipps said. “I’d like to see how I can help other families not go through these kinds of problems.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.