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Nonprofit pays off education debts for US veterans

Leave No Veteran Behind helps pay for veterans' student debts not covered by other military programs, like the G.I. Bill.

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    A New York Army National Guard soldier kisses his wife during a homecoming ceremony in New York as the unit returns from Iraq. The nonprofit group Leave No Veteran Behind helps those returning from military service pay off their educational debts.
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Delaina Conour was working, going to school, and had just purchased her first home when the events of 9/11 spurred her to uproot her entire life and enlist in the U.S. Army. 

She made it as far as Germany before being sidelined by a back injury, and was left behind when her entire team was sent to Iraq. Within a few weeks of going into combat, all but one of her peers was dead, she said. Soon after, Conour was medically discharged from service, finished school in Europe, and moved back to the U.S.— racked with survivor's guilt, to add to her physical injuries. 

In 2006, Conour and her disabled veteran husband had a daughter. She was born with Down syndrome and has required a dozen surgeries since.

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“We ended up forced into bankruptcy and ended up losing our home because of medical bills,” Conour said.

Declaring bankruptcy helped clear most of the family's debt, but more than $15,000 in school loans could not be discharged. As she was surfing the Internet one day Conour stumbled upon a new nonprofit aimed at helping military vets get out from under educational debt.

“I didn’t even know help like this existed,” said Conour.

She soon became one of 10 veterans whose student loans have been paid off by Leave No Veteran Behind since 2009. Her portion of the family’s loans, about $10,000, was paid for in full by the nonprofit.

Though it's been around a while, Leave No Veteran Behind is still in its infancy, according to the two vets who created it while they were struggling with their own debt after returning from deployment. The nonprofit has a two-pronged approach: Help veterans find and train for jobs in Chicago, where the founders are from, and create a national program to pay for veteran student debt not covered by other military programs, like the G.I. Bill.

Leave No Veteran Behind debt repayment works like a “retroactive scholarship,” said founder Eli Williamson. Instead of awarding money based on potential, as colleges do for superstar athletes or academic geniuses, this program pays off veterans who served honorably, have outstanding student loans, and face some type of economic hardship, like unemployment or a medical condition. Those accepted must complete 100 hours of community service in exchange for debt payment.

The average student loan debt of veterans hovers around $56,000, according to research released in July by the nonprofit. While there are military programs designed to help those in educational debt, there are still a lot of gaps in coverage, and the system can be confusing and hard to navigate.

The G.I. Bill doesn’t typically pay for school debt acquired prior to service, so if someone attends school in preparation for the military they will not be reimbursed. A military student loan repayment program also exists, but it’s only applicable to certain types of debt, such as Federal Stafford Loans, said Williamson.

In 2012, a report released by the Office of Servicemember Affairs found that many financial institutions didn’t adequately explain benefits to members of the military, denying them reduced interest rates or other perks to which they were entitled.

"The No. 1 reason people in the service lose their security clearance is because of financial problems," Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said at a Pentagon press conference about the report. "Student loans are one important part of the total debt burden—from mortgages to credit cards to other debt—on those who are serving in the military today."

Trying to repay steep student loans after deployment is only compounded by the high unemployment rate that continues to plague veterans. This summer, the overall unemployment rate was cited as 6.6 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but for veterans between the ages of 18 and 24, that rate is closer to 21 percent.

On top of all this, the military values and encourages more educated ranks, said Williamson, so it should be willing to pay for this investment. Servicemen and women are often awarded higher rankings for higher education, and at a minimum, anyone entering the service must have a high school diploma, he said. The myth is that our troops are uneducated, Williamson said.

As of now, the biggest hurdle to the success of Leave No Veteran Behind is funding. Most of the money raised so far has come from small foundation grants, private donors, corporate sponsors, and other revenue streams. 

While the implications of this program could be huge, the group is still small and its progress slow.

So now, they’re finally ready to write that letter to Oprah, said Williamson.

“It’s [the program's] no longer just a good idea, we’ve been doing it,” he said.

So far, they've paid off just under $150,000 in student loans and are hoping to pay for five more veterans' debts before the end of the year. Their goal is to afford to pay off 60 to 90 veterans' educational debt each year.

Marine veteran John Frias, 32, served in Somalia from 2002 to 2007 and completed his bachelor's degree while in service. He went on to complete a master's in education and is now teaching fifth grade math in Queens, N.Y. Although the military paid for a portion of his graduate education, he still had about $8,000 in outstanding loans from his pre-military undergraduate work in criminal justice.

Frias found Leave No Veteran Behind much like Conour did, through a desperate Google search. He applied, was accepted, and had his remaining debt paid for.

“It’s a weight that’s lifted off knowing its one less thing you have to think about,” he said. “I was excited about it, but it’s more of a relief.”

• Hayley Fox is a regular contributor to TakePart who has covered breaking news and the occasional animal story for public radio station KPCC in Los Angeles.

This article originally appeared at TakePart, a leading source of socially relevant news, features, opinion, entertainment, and information – all focused on the issues that shape our lives.

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