Flight School Seeks Support For Stranded Veterans In Arizona After VA Makes Last-Minute Rule Change

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North-Aire Aviation seeks support for dozens of veterans and aspiring pilots stranded in Prescott after VA abruptly halts education benefits for flight training under the Post-9/11 GI Bill program

"No matter the reasoning, veterans should never be penalized for policies and political intrigue over which they have no control." -- Justin Scott, North-Aire Aviation

An eleventh-hour decision by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has left dozens of veterans stranded in Prescott, Ariz., with limited employment opportunities and families to care for, and once again prompting allegations that the VA has again turned it’s back on America’s veterans. North-Aire Aviation, a fixed-wing flight school that participates in the program, is working with the state legislature and stranded veterans to seek support for the stranded veterans.

“No matter the reasoning, veterans should never be penalized for policies and political intrigue over which they have no control. How can we, as Americans who have been kept safe by the sacrifices of our veterans, fail to speak up and fight for the GI Bill benefits they were promised and have so valiantly earned?” said Justin Scott, owner of North-Aire Aviation. “First, let’s get these displaced veterans back into the aviation programs in which they were enrolled and accepted. Then, the academic institutions, flight school industry, and VA can work out the details of how to measure success going forward.”

Approximately one month before classes were set to begin, the VA abruptly suspended enrollment in flight training programs participating in a Post-9/11 GI Bill program that offers education benefits to veterans. One is Prescott-based Yavapai College, which contracts with North-Aire Aviation and other local aviation training programs for flight operations under its aviation technology program. Last week, an Arizona State Representative, Sonny Borrelli, himself a veteran and chair of the House Committee on Military Affairs and Public Safety, called for a joint legislative hearing to address concerns regarding the VA’s recent actions.

“These are men and women who served their country honorably and earned the benefits promised by the GI Bill. Many of these veterans left their jobs and moved their families to participate in this flight-training program, and they deserve answers as to why they’re suddenly getting turned away,” Representative Borrelli said.

At issue is what’s called the 85/15 rule, which requires 15 percent of students to be nonveterans as a widely supported checks-and-balances procedure that aims to keep costs in check. This year, however, the VA abruptly changed how it calculates the 85/15 rule without notice or due diligence. Flight schools had no advance notice or grace period to comply with the new calculation, and only learned of the change after receiving an order from the VA placing their programs out of service.

As a result, veteran students already accepted into the program were informed of the suspension with little more than one month’s notice, and after many of them had completed major life changes – such as leaving well-paying jobs, cross-country moves, sold homes and moved families – to start the program on May 11.

In a letter to U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar (AZ-04), Senior Airman Christopher Shelby, U.S. Reserves and former active duty service member, detailed “a long and arduous journey” for he and his wife: “We pushed through because we knew there would be light at the end of the tunnel. Or so we thought. Two weeks after arriving in Prescott Valley, I received the email from Yavapai College that took that light away.”

He and his wife have since lost more than $60,000 in wages and spent more than $15,000 in savings. Shelby’s wife has struggled to “start completely over in a city that is not a mecca for jobs,” he wrote. “We are now in Prescott Valley with no jobs, no careers and no income. Our savings — what little is left — is not going to last us very long. Had this decision been made sooner, I would not have left active duty Air Force and my wife would not have had to leave her career.”

Master Sergeant Patrick Needham, USAF (Ret.), has a similar story. On the very day he was informed of the program’s suspension, he watched in disbelief as movers packed up his Omaha, Neb. home. His wife was already in Arizona seeking employment opportunities.

“The decision to leave the military and attend college is not a small decision and not one that can be adjusted for with only one month of notice before our planned start date,” he wrote in a letter to U.S. Senator John McCain and U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar. “I may have quit my job, sold my house, and moved halfway across the country, but I still have a retirement income to help make ends meet while we address this issue. My real concern is for the other soldiers and airmen who were planning to start class with me in May. They may have left a promising military career to pursue their dreams, they will undoubtedly not have a job lined up, nor have a place to live. All of this on account of a last minute and unwarranted decision on the part of the VA, the very organization which is supposed to be here to help them through their transition.”

In April, Senator McCain and Congressman Gosar wrote a joint letter to MG Robert Worley, USAF (ret), who directs education services at the Veterans Benefit Administration in Washington, inquiring about the situation. To date, they have still not received a response.

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Melissa DeLaney