Saturday, January 02, 2010

7409: Vets Battling Debts.

From The Chicago Tribune…

2 veterans help others battle debt
In exchange for donations, vets do community service under charity’s auspices

By Bonnie Miller Rubin, Tribune reporter

It was past midnight in December 2003, when Roy Brown, a 23-year-old soldier serving in Iraq, experienced a life-changing moment.

Ironically, it didn’t happen in combat but while the South Sider was on the phone, doing battle with a bank over his college loans.

“I’m on the other side of the world, worrying about (bombs) and where my unit would be moving next, and some loan officer is harassing my mother over $82.67,” said Brown, shaking his head. “I just felt so disheartened and let down.”

His high school pal, Eli Williamson, dealt with similar phone calls while overseas: “You can’t even print what I was feeling.”

But the disappointment and anger were followed by action. Once back home in Chicago, the two soldiers used their experiences as motivation to launch a nonprofit called Leave No Veteran Behind, dedicated to relieving the educational debt of those who have served in the military.

Brown and Williamson, both 29, have found office space on LaSalle Street, assembled a board of directors, connected with donors and erased the tuition bills of two servicemen and enrolled another 100 or so applicants, all of whom have been dogged by college bills.

Leave No Veteran Behind uses private donations to pay off a veteran’s outstanding loans. In exchange, the soldier commits to 100 hours of community service, which helps provide purpose for someone who might have difficulty re-entering civilian life.

The GI Bill pays for the education of those who have served honorably, but it does not pick up the tab retroactively, and funding has not kept pace with skyrocketing tuition costs, requiring many cash-strapped GIs to sink further into debt to cover the difference.

That was the situation Williamson and Brown found themselves in. Graduates of Kenwood Academy in Hyde Park, the men went to Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, where they majored in communications and business, respectively. In 1999, with the U.S. not engaged in any major conflicts, they joined the Army Reserves as a way to defray college costs, which now runs almost $38,000 annually at Luther.

Then came 9/11.

During the last semester of Brown’s senior year, in March 2003, he was deployed to Iraq.

“I was totally stunned,” he said. “I’m on a college campus and then, 30 days later, I’m in the sandbox … in a whole other reality.”

Williamson shipped out the following year, first to Fort Bragg, N.C., then to Iraq and Afghanistan. He mistakenly thought his loan payments would be deferred while on duty. Defaulting on his loans threatened not just his bank account but his security clearance.

At one time, the soldier was so desperate he played guitar on streets, working for tips.

“I didn’t want to go to my parents,” said Williamson, who is now married with a baby and owes about $70,000 in loans. “I felt like it was my issue.”

But when the men heard similar stories from other veterans, they felt they had to tackle the problem head on. Since March, they have raised almost $23,000 with the hope of reaching $160,000 by this time next year. (No funds can be used for their own debts).

According to Dan Grant, director of the state Department of Veterans Affairs, Illinois is one of the best states for providing educational benefits to veterans. “But in instances where the GI Bill or the Illinois Veterans Grant does not cover debt ... it’s great that an organization like Leave No Veteran Behind stands ready to make sure that veterans receive needed assistance.”

One of the first recipients was Andrew Quamme, 33, of Daniel Island, S.C., who owed $2,400 for an engineering class.

“When I first got the call, I couldn’t believe it. … I thought it was a scam,” said the Marine, unemployed and expecting his first child. “With the economy the way it is, any bill is a worry.”

Profiles of enrollees can be found on the group’s Web site. But the founders stress that their purpose is not to be one more charity soliciting donations but to offer something in return, Williamson said: “We want people to know that if you make an investment, they are not just benefiting a veteran but the community at large.”

That aspect spurred the Field Foundation of Illinois to give the fledgling initiative $5,000 for its Chicago Public Schools Veteran Engagement Project, which puts soldiers on the streets in the Bronzeville neighborhood to provide an adult presence and resolve conflicts for students en route home.

“We were impressed with the mission and leadership of the organization,” said Mark Murray, the Field Foundation’s senior program officer, “and their ability to create a positive impact in neighborhoods of need.”

That is why the two men—ties crisply knotted, shoes polished to a high gloss—were shivering on a slushy corner of 35th Street and Martin Luther King Drive, where 10 schools converge and a few sharp words can easily erupt into violence.

The intersection is a detour from the high-powered careers and six-figure salaries on their original road map, said Brown, who previously worked as a district manager for Aldi groceries before starting the nonprofit.

“All the perks didn’t equate to moral wealth,” he explained. “A life with no purpose is no life at all.”

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