Veteran gets shortchanged on education benefits

Jimmie Davis Jr. | 4/10/2014, 9 a.m.

For the last two semesters Army Veteran Billy Leonard, 54, has been working towards his Associate of Science degree in Funeral Service Education at Miami Dade College [MDC] to become a funeral director.

The problem is his Veterans Retraining Assistance Program [VRAP] only pays for one year of educational benefits, but they specify that his curriculum must lead to an Associate Degree.

Now, Leonard and thousands of other Veterans across the nation are forced to drop out of college as congressional lawmakers on Capitol Hill argue over extending the job-training program, which expired March 31.

“This whole situation with VRAP is so depressing,” said Leonard during an interview at MDC North Campus. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Leonard has serious concerns about his education and wants to know why VRAP was only funded for one year, but stipulated that he pursue an Associate Degree, which normally takes about two years to obtain.

VRAP is a job training program, which was crafted by U.S. Congressman Jeff Miller (R-FL-01) specifically to give Veterans an opportunity to get short-term job training for in-demand occupations.

“Chairman Miller believes that taxpayers deserve to know whether programs are working as intended before they are expanded,” said Curt Cashour, House Committee on Veterans Spokesman. “Before VRAP is expanded, more study is required to determine whether Veterans getting training through the program are getting and keeping jobs.”

These days getting and keeping a job is a priority for Veterans but Leonard’s classes end in April, less than a month after the VRAP program will run its course.

Earlier this legislative session, a house bill known as the VRAP Extension Act of 2013 was introduced by Chairman Miller and passed before going to the Senate where it stalled after facing opposition.

Michael Briggs, spokesman for Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs was decidedly silent regarding VRAP.

“If you’re looking for quotes we can’t help with that,” he said.

While the bill sits in the Senate, the Veterans Affairs in Virginia came to the rescue and gave Leonard and other Veterans their monthly stipend of $1,648, the amount they would have received under the VRAP program.

“To enable VRAP participants to complete training for their current enrollment period, the VA will provide a one-time payment to cover training from April 1 through the conclusion of a Veteran’s current enrollment,” said VA spokesman Drew Brookie.

There’s over 50 Veterans enrolled at MDC north campus in VRAP who have no clue as to whether or not the program will be extended. Leonard's concerns mirror doubts of many of his peers.

“I’m worried and I have no answer to how I’m going to finance my education,” he said. “I would like to see VRAP continue for another year so I can complete my Associates Degree."

Jimmie Davis, Jr. is an Army Veteran and VRAP participant attending MDC North campus.