“I still don’t have my degree:” VA makes mistake, then sends veteran a bill for $82,000

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MILWAUKEE — Anybody who has done battle with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs knows the process can be long and painful.  There can be hours of paperwork.  People even spend years of their life waiting on the process. But what you don't expect is to get what you've been waiting for— only to have it  taken away.

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Photos of Pittenger in uniform, fighting for his country in Afghanistan.

Daniel Pittenger enlisted in the Army a week before September 11th, 2001.

"I still remember the recruiter sitting at the table telling my parents, 'when was the last time there was a war? We are not at war with anyone,'" Pittenger said.

Before he knew it, Pittenger was halfway around the world, stationed in Afghanistan.

He was 11 Bravo, Airborne Infantry.  He was a guy who jumped out of airplanes.

"My family is here today because the people I was over there with -- they pretty much gave everything, you know?" Pittenger said.

Since he's been home, he's become a father, which is the main reason he decided to go back to school. He says he wanted to provide his family with a better life.

Pittenger applied for the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill -- and he got it. The federal government agreed to cover his college tuition for 36 months.

For nearly three years, he took classes while working a full-time job.  And then he got a letter.

"One day I received these letters in the mail from the VA saying, 'you are not eligible for the G.I. Bill.  Basically, we made a mistake and now you owe us $82,000 in back pay,'" Pittenger said.

It was the exact opposite of what he had been told three years earlier.

"I was like, 'this has got to be some sort of mistake,'" he said.

How could it happen?

The Post-9/11 G.I. Bill is given to service members who served for at least 90 days after the World Trade Center was hit. You can get it if you're still on active duty or if you've been honorably discharged.

"They're the VA. They have all my information on file," Pittenger said.VA site 2

But the paperwork he had and the paperwork they had didn't match.

Even though Pittenger has an honorable discharge certificate, his DD 214 says he was discharged under honorable conditions. But that's not the same thing as being "honorably discharged," and it wouldn't qualify him for educational benefits.

"It just makes you feel like everything that you have done doesn't really mean anything to them," he said.

FOX6 Investigators spent months calling and emailing the VA for answers, to ask why their records system was incomplete. How could he have a DD 256A that says one thing and a DD 214 that says another?

When they finally gave us an answer — it was an apology.

In a statement, the VA admits it made an error and agreed, after we started investigating, to waive the $82,000 debt.

The VA says it regrets any inconvenience and they thanked the veteran for his service, but they still haven't explained why their records don't match his. And they are still claiming he never should have qualified for the G.I. Bill in the first place because he wasn't honorably discharged. A spokesperson for the VA even implied maybe he bought some of his paperwork online. Pittenger says that's 100% untrue and everything he has he was given by the Army.

"It just made me feel like I was just a number," Pittenger said.

attorney

James Brzezsinski, a former employee at the VA, now works to help veterans sift through problems as an attorney.

"The VA themselves have proven that they can't always be trusted," says James Brzezsinski, veteran rights attorney.

Brzezsinski used to work at the VA.  Now, he's an attorney who helps veterans fight for the benefits they deserve when they get back home.

" I feel like we owe it to them as a society to make sure they are taken care of," he said.

Brzezsinski has agreed to take on Pittenger's case pro bono.

"I still don't have my degree yet," Pittenger said.

They will try to prove Pittenger was honorably discharged from the Army and he should be able to finish school at the government's expense.

According to the VA, last year nearly 14,000 Wisconsin veterans were receiving education benefits.The VA doesn't keep track of how many of those veterans encounter problems like this one. The VA says its state-by-state tracking system isn't capable of keeping that data.

8 comments

  • kim

    Wow! They accused him of buying his discharge papers? That person should be fired. The majority at the VA should probably be fired..

  • Unbelievable

    Earlier today when his DD 214 (with his SSN) was posted for all to see I made the following comment:
    Case closed pay back the money you fraudulently received.. His DD214 says after 3 years and 5 months of service he was discharged as a Private E1. After 3 years and 5 months he should have been a E4 or E5, this tells me he was reduced in rank for misconduct (that explains a General Discharge under honorable conditions in block 24 of the DD214). A General Discharge is not a Honorable Discharge but its better than a Dishonorable Discharge. It also states in block 18 of the DD214 that Federal Benefits will be reviewed after data is matched (thats how he got caught). As far as the DD256 (Discharge Certificate) that means nothing, its for hanging on a wall and are easily forged. The DD214 is the only legitimate proof of service and it proves the VA is correct.

    There is more to this story than he is telling Fox 6. Why were you discharged under a General Discharge and not Honorable?

    Why are you contacting Fox 6 and not your US Representative?

    Why did you spend 3 and a half years in the Army and discharged as a Private E1?

    The Post 911 GI bill is a cash cow (pays tuition, pays for books and pays you a housing allowance of about $500 a month, yes it pays your school and YOU to go. It is ripe for fraud, waste and abuse.

    I think this guy milked the system and now wants sympathy.

    • Soertel

      You’re right, you probably did more research than Fox 6. I’m sure they don’t check resources or make sure their facts are straight before airing it on television. In case you’re too dense to tell, I’m being sarcastic. There are reasons behind his HONORABLE discharge that aren’t being shared for personal reasons and to protect family. None of which is your business. Fox 6 is aware of them and respected the family’s wishes. Also, MANY representatives have been written to, Governor Walker, and even President Obama have been written to as well. And lastly, you should be thanking him for risking his life so that you have the freedom to post and make such rude comments. You’re welcome.

      • resident

        Actually think unbelievable may have nailed it. 3.5 years of service and not 4 or 6. The E-1 grade is pretty telling. Also before you tell me to thank him for risking his life so that I have the freedom to post this, note that I risked my life so that I have the freedom to post this. I would suspect unbelievable is a veteran as well. I cometed my service and used my post 9/11 GI Bill benefits. I had an honorable discharge and completed my degree. This article does not address why he doesn’t have his degree. How many credits remain, was it an approved program, did he fail classes, etc.

      • Unbelievable

        Thanks for proving me correct on his issues on why was reduced in rank. You say HONORABLE discharge his DD214 said GENERAL unless he has a DD215 that corrected the DD214. I know what a HONORABLE discharge is, I have one after 26 years and 6 months of service. You get one when you retire. The only defense I would have for this guy is if the VA made a mistake and did not catch his GD. I still question where the DD256 (Honorable Discharge Certificate) came from? Those can be easily counterfeited since they are meant to hang on a wall like a diploma, they have no credibility for character of service. The Post 911 GI Bill is not meant for every Servicemember who left the military under questionable conditions. I think I earned my right to question this Soldier and his situation, especially when the VA is thrown under the bus by a civilian news organization who has no clue what the VA has done for me.

      • Unbelievable

        @Soertel, you also admitted FOX 6 held back information on this situation? Very interesting that this “news” organization may have ran nothing more than a hit piece on the VA. Fox 6 “Investigators” should perhaps investigate themselves.

    • Geronimo

      I have to admit, I fell for it after initially hearing of this story. I served with the individual involved and was deployed with him in Afghanistan. Then, after remembering that he was the E-4 that locked and loaded and pointed his weapon at the First Sergeant, I remembered why he was lowered in rank and discharged under other than honorable conditions. I withdraw my sympathy for this veteran and believe that this “story” should have been researched much more thoroughly before pointing the finger at the VA.

  • resident

    Good click bait fox 6. Did the VA really make a mistake or did someone who did not qualify for benefits take advantage? I have never gone to “war” with the VA because they have always been helpfull and courteous to this veteran. Shouldn’t have people who have no idea about military service write these stories.

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