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Group Relieves Veterans Of Student Loan Burdens
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Group Relieves Veterans Of Student Loan Burdens

Economy

Group Relieves Veterans Of Student Loan Burdens

Group Relieves Veterans Of Student Loan Burdens
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Despite a new, more generous GI Bill, plenty of veterans have paid for college with little or no help from the government. Because the new measure isn't retroactive, these vets are mostly digging out of college debt on their own. One group is trying to help veterans pay off their student loans and get on with their lives.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

Now to military veterans and the programs the federal government runs to help them pay for college.

Despite that help, an estimated one million vets struggle with repaying student loans.

NPR's Dianna Douglas has the story of two Chicago men who encountered the problem and who are now trying to help others.

DIANNA DOUGLAS: Roy Brown and Eli Williamson met in Latin class their freshman year of high school on Chicago's South Side. They went off to the same college, and then joined the Army and shipped off to the Middle East. Soon, both found themselves on the wrong end of calls from creditors. One found Roy Brown in Iraq.

Mr. ROY BROWN (Cofounder, Leave No Veteran Behind): Here I am in the middle of the night at 2 a.m., instead of calling my mother, I have to call a student loan company about a payment that needs to be made.

DOUGLAS: Roy Brown wasn't too far behind on his loans, but Eli Williamson nearly defaulted.

Mr. ELI WILLIAMSON: What we wanted to do, both Roy and myself, was call Oprah, because this is when she was giving out cars and stuff.

DOUGLAS: People in their units made fun of their plan, but...

Mr. WILLIAMSON: We had a lot of individuals who'd come to us on the side and say, hey, you know, I'm kind of having the same issue. If Oprah helps you out, please, can you put a word in for me?

DOUGLAS: Their loans should have been deferred during military service, but it's not always so tidy when multiple banks hold multiple student loans. Williamson and Brown got their loans straightened out and moved on with their lives. But the memory of fighting a war and fighting off creditors left a bad taste. Brown says Williamson came up with a plan to help others with the same problem and talked him into launching it.

Mr. BROWN: I left corporate America. I gave my two-week notice in and said I'm going to start a nonprofit in an economic downturn. And Eli got out of the service, and together we formed Leave No Veteran Behind.

DOUGLAS: With their nonprofit Leave No Veteran Behind, Brown and Williamson now offer to pay off the student loans of vets who fall on hard times. They see the government's education programs for service members as inadequate. The GI Bill, for example, won't pay back student loans people took out before joining, or for classes that get interrupted by deployment. In the last year, Brown and Williamson have been contacted by hundreds of veterans, each with an average of $42,000 in student loans.

Mr. WILLIAMSON: It's a very rosy scenario to say that we can take care of 100 percent of all these individuals on our role and get rid of this mountain of debt. But the reality is is that that's what they deserve.

DOUGLAS: They raise money online and solicit from large donors and corporations. As soon as they have enough money to pay off a loan, Eli Williamson joins a three-way call with the lender and the vet and gets to make everybody happy.

SHERRY (Loan Servicing Rep): Thanks for calling student loan servicing center. My name is Sherry. Whom am I speaking with?

Ms. DORIS BARREN: This is Doris Barren.

SHERRY: And Doris, can you please verify your mailing address for me?

DOUGLAS: Fifty-one-year-old Doris Barren recently became the third person to have her student loans wiped away through small donations raised by Williamson and Brown.

SHERRY: What can I do for you today?

Ms. BARREN: I have Mr. Eli Whitney(ph) on the line with me. He's from a program called Leave No Veteran Behind, and he's going to pay it in full, and I'm calling to give him permission to do so.

DOUGLAS: Doris Barren was in the Air Force for 26 years. She made it her career. After her last transfer to Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, she started preparing for life after the service and enrolled at a nearby college.

Ms. BARREN: By the time I retired from the military, I had my associate's degree, and I was working on my bachelor's degree. But when I deployed to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, it kind of cut out a lot.

DOUGLAS: She didn't finish that semester, but still had to pay for it. When her deployment ended, her disabled father moved in. Getting back to school became much too complicated. Her $5,000 debt was perfect for Leave No Veteran Behind, a sum just small enough to raise.

Now, a monthly student loan payment is one less thing for Barren to worry about. Three down, one million to go. Roy Brown admits he doesn't want to raise that money personally. His plans for his nonprofit include a miracle.

Mr. BROWN: If we're not in existence in five years, it's possible some politician sees this, takes action and makes sure that this issue doesn't exist.

DOUGLAS: Until then, they're fighting for every dollar, trying to convince private citizens to step in where the government won't.

Dianna Douglas NPR News, Chicago.

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