Article published Feb 15, 2007
Feb 15, 2007
State law awards decorated veterans with free tuition
Most students come to higher education fresh out of high school. Brian Sellers came to college fresh off months of recovering from shrapnel wounds that ripped through his body during his tour of Iraq.
As a wounded veteran, Sellers, a 24-year-old Santa Fe Community College student, is among a handful of students at SFCC and the University of Florida who qualify for free tuition thanks to their military service.
A law signed last summer by former Gov. Jeb Bush gives Florida-based veterans with Purple Hearts or medals of higher precedence four-year tuition waivers to Florida public colleges and universities. It took effect in the 2006-2007 school year.
For Sellers, like other full-time SFCC students, the waiver puts about $1,000 in his pocket each semester, money that would otherwise go to tuition. Sellers said he gets another $1,600 a month in federal veterans benefits.
The tuition waiver is worth about $1,500 a semester to full-time University of Florida students. John Gebhardt, veterans advocate in the Office of Veterans Affairs at SFCC, said that between both schools only a handful of students qualify for the benefit.
Sellers' part in the Iraq War ended in Ramadi on Oct. 23, 2004, minutes after returning from a combat mission battling insurgents.
As the Marine sergeant strode into his base, a 120 mm enemy mortar landed on the other side of the door he was standing next to.
"It took me out and it took four Humvees out," Sellers explained. "Rumor has it that they almost pronounced me dead twice."
The shrapnel in Sellers' body inflicted a permanent speech impediment because he lost 70 percent of the use of his tongue. It also earned him a Purple Heart combat medal.
Lee Kichen, a legislative director for the Florida organization of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said the law came about through lobbying by a coalition of veterans groups. Kichen said the VFW wants all veterans to receive tuition waivers from the state, but were able to persuade legislative sponsors to at least include medal winners of Purple Hearts or higher.
He said the case of two other SFCC students illustrates why the law should be expanded.
Darryl "D.J." Kerr, 27, and John Wadkins, 23, believed they were eligible for the tuition waivers and were told they qualified by SFCC Veterans Affairs staff.
But despite receiving Army Commendation medals with Valor devices — in which they risked their own lives to saves scores of others — they do not qualify under the new law, Kichen said.
Kerr and Wadkins were working on their associate's degrees before entering a training program for physician's assistants at an Army school in Texas.
Both men are sergeants in the Florida Army National Guard, and they qualify for payment of their tuition through the Guard. But Kerr noted they are then subject to having their National Guard tours extended by three years. The new tuition waiver comes with no strings attached.
Kichen said the men do not qualify for the tuition waiver because their medals are below the Purple Heart in the military's order of precedence.
The VFW argues that all Florida veterans should receive university and college tuition waivers in return for their service. And Kichen said it makes no sense that the law would exclude men like Kerr and Wadkins, who have received awards for valor. He vowed to lobby for expansion of the benefit in the current legislative session.
Neither the soldiers, who are in the Florida Army National Guard, nor Gebhardt, the veterans advocate, said they realized Kerr and Wadkins did not qualify for the waiver until faced with questions from The Sun.
Both men said they would now likely use the National Guard tuition benefit. They said they used the state's tuition waiver because it required less paperwork.
Kerr and Wadkins' commendations came as the result of a particularly nasty suicide bombing at Kabul Military Training Center, and their response to it.
When the base shook from an explosion on the afternoon of Oct. 23, 2005, Kerr, Wadkins, who is an army combat medic, and the men's squad leader raced to the front gates to find a horrific scene of burning people and buses, the men said.
Wadkins said the suicide bomber riding a motorcycle detonated three 120 mm mortars strapped to his back as he pulled alongside three buses with 60 to 70 people inside.
The soldiers darted into the flames and pulled bodies out of the wreckage, put them on flatbed trucks to be taken to the hospital, and stabilized those they could, Wadkins said. Kerr tried to put the burning diesel fuel out with a fire extinguisher until a German fire engine showed up.
After reading the commendation on his certificate, Kerr summed up the award. "That's something that a normal soldier wouldn't be expected to do. That's what I figured my job was."
Copyright material is distributed without profit or payment for research and educational purposes only, in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107. Reference: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml