Purple Heart recipient draws attention to GI Bill changes affecting student veterans

by Michelle Saxton
Thursday, October 20, 2011

Staff photo by Allison Potter

Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-N.C., awards Sgt. Jason Thigpen a Purple Heart during a ceremony at VFW Post 2573 on Wednesday, Oct. 19.

Family members, military officials and elected representatives all came to the VFW Post 2573 in Wilmington on Wednesday, Oct. 19, to watch Sgt. Jason Thigpen receive a Purple Heart medal.

But Thigpen insisted the ceremony was not about him.

"Itís just a way of showing support for every veteran and all the sacrifices that every single service member and veteran have made alike," Thigpen, who served in the Army National Guard, said right before the ceremony.

Thigpen spoke about changes made earlier this year to the Post-9/11 GI Bill that affect nonresident student veterans because the additional costs between in-state and out-of-state tuition are no longer covered.

For nonresidents at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, that can mean out-of-pocket costs of about $11,000 a year, Thigpen said.

Thigpen, a UNCW student majoring in accounting and finance, is from Wilmington. But while the changes do not affect him personally he has heard many stories from fellow student veterans, including several who have said they must leave school after this semester because they cannot afford the tuition.

UNCW has about 900 veterans, or about 7 percent of the student body population, Thigpen said.

The changes affected about 80 UNCW students from the last school year and another 80 who started this fall, Ann Marie Beall, UNCWís associate director for transfer and nontraditional admission, said Tuesday, Oct. 17

"They are eligible to apply for financial aid to cover that difference but naturally some donít want to have to do that," Beall said. "I certainly understand where theyíre coming from."

UNCW has been sending emails to affected students and advising them to talk with university officials about filling out paperwork to have their residency status reconsidered, in case of any incomplete information that could make a difference, Beall said.

Students still get living and book stipends, she said.

Some universities have Yellow Ribbon programs to make more funds available, but Beall said UNCW cannot do so at this time because of the economic climate and the growing number of student veterans.

The university also cannot make changes to the residency requirements because it is state law, she said.

Thigpen recently started the nonprofit Student Veterans Advocacy Group of NC, with a website that was set up Tuesday, Oct. 18 ó www.studentveteransadvocacy group.org, where people can show support for veterans by signing an e-petition.

He also has written letters to state lawmakers about the issue.

"All the states have to do is change their state statutes as they currently read to grant veterans in-state residency for tuition purposes," Thigpen said.

Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-N.C., who presented Thigpen with the Purple Heart, said he has worked with him in sending letters to members of the North Carolina General Assembly about the issue.

"For proper implementation in the spirit of what was meant to be achieved in the GI Bill Ö we need the state legislature to take action to make the technical legal change in how they regard out-of-state tuition for veterans," McIntyre said after the ceremony.

State lawmakersí focus over the last year was getting the budget balanced, said Sen. David Rouzer, R-Johnston County, who attended the ceremony.

"There is strong interest at the legislature to do everything that we can to support our veterans, those who go in harmís way and defend our country and defend our liberty," said Rouzer, who plans to run for Congress in the 7th District. "Weíre just going to have to see what the budget looks like."

Others who attended the ceremony included Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo, New Hanover County Commissoners Vice Chairman Jason Thompson and UNCW Chancellor Gary Miller.

Family members in attendance included Staff Sgt. Al Smith, Thigpenís second cousin.

"Heís a loving father, (a) good soldier," Smith said.

Thigpen suffered a concussion and traumatic brain injury after his convoy was struck by a roadside bomb in August 2009 while completing an emergency recovery mission in Iraq. Everyone in his convoy survived, but several were wounded.

"We were just very, very lucky," Thigpen said. "Itís just one of those things that kind of makes you see, a little bit bigger than yourself, whatís going on."

Thigpen, a 34-year-old father of two daughters, was in the process of being medically retired due to his injuries.

He had mixed emotions of guilt, pride, appreciation and honor in receiving the Purple Heart.

"Itís humbling," said Thigpen, who is also junior vice commander of the Disabled American Veterans Chapter 11 in Wilmington, later adding. "With everything that happened itís given me a much greater sense of self-awareness, who I am and what I am and whatís more meaningful in my life today."

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