Battle over benefits: Army vet’s Supreme Court fight for G.I. Bill could impact 1.7 million soldiers (2024)

On a break from his work as an FBI bomb technician, Jim Rudisill reflects on his explosive role in one of the most significant legal cases involving military veterans in recent memory.

“More than a little humbling,” Rudisill said. “It was very moving. I was very proud to be able to represent the veterans’ community – especially the post-9/11 veterans’ community – in this cause.”

Rudisill is taking on the Department of Veteran’s Affairs in the Supreme Court, claiming the VA shorted him out of benefits he earned on the battlefield.

Rudisill joined the U.S. Army in 2000, and served for two years, then went to Appalachian State University under the G.I. Bill.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he joined the Army again. This time, he served one combat tour in Afghanistan — and two in Iraq.

In 2005, he was wounded in roadside bomb attack in Iraq, and had to be medically evacuated from a combat zone to Balad Air Force base.

“Part of looking for IEDs is a lot of times, they find you, you don’t find them,” Rudisill said.

Rudisill was recognized with the bronze star. After six years in war zones, he decided to leave the Army and return to civilian life.

“Getting out of the Army was hard,” he said. “One of the hardest parts about coming home was losing soldiers to suicide.”

He said the problems he witnessed among the veteran community were heartbreaking.

“Losing soldiers to addiction, that was very difficult,” Rudisill said. “There’s a lot of guilt that goes along with that. You ask yourself, is there something that I could have done to make a difference?”

He found an answer in his faith and committed to return to the military as a chaplain so he could help guide his fellow soldiers through their struggles.

“One thing that helped me more than any group therapy session or trying to have someone talk me through my own issues, was just being in the presence of others,” he said. “Letting them see you out there in the field covered in mud just like they are, suffering just like they are with weight on your back and weariness in your knees.”

He planned to go to graduate school, using a generous new G.I. Bill, the one congress passed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

He was admitted to Yale Divinity School, and he expected to use the post-9/11 G.I. Bill to pay for the Ivy League graduate degree.

But, when he applied to the VA to use the benefits he earned, he was denied.

They said because he had already started using the previous G.I. Bill – known as the Montgomery G.I. Bill – he had to continue under that one, which doesn’t provide nearly as much money.

“That prevented me from pursuing that goal,” he said.

Rudisill earned benefits under two separate programs during separate and distinct periods of service in the military, a situation that raised the question of how the benefits can be combined.

Under federal law, higher education payouts for veterans are capped at 48 months.

The peacetime Montgomery G.I Bill functions kind of like “financial aid.” Veterans pay into the program and receive a check that can be used for tuition for up to 36 months.

The much more generous post-9/11 G.I. Bill is more like a “full scholarship.” It pays colleges and universities directly for tuition, fees, books, and housing.

Rudisill used about 25 months of his Montgomery G.I. Bill benefits to earn his bachelor’s degree. At the time, the post-9/11 bill didn’t even exist.

But when it came time for grad school– he wanted to use the better benefits.

Here’s where it gets complicated. The Department of Veteran’s Affairs denied the post-9/11 benefits, saying since Rudisill had already started using the less generous Montgomery benefits, he had to exhaust the remaining 11 months before he could switch to the post-9/11 benefits.

The difference in money put Yale out of reach, and the dream of attending the prestigious divinity school was lost in the VA’s byzantine bureaucracy.

“It was really confusing and that’s why I reached out to my attorneys,” he said.

His attorney, lawyer Misha Tseytlin, a Chicago-based partner for the law firm Troutman Pepper, had experience arguing before the Supreme Court – and took the case pro bono.

“The VA’s decision is based on a misreading of the statutory text,” Tseytlin said. “These are truly life changing benefits.”

The legal battle would take nearly as long as Rudisill’s time in uniform – eight years through the lower courts — working all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. In that time, Rudisill, now 43, aged out of active service as a chaplain.

“I was upset that I was not being allowed to utilize the funds that I earned,” he said.

In a brief filed ahead of arguments at the Supreme Court, VA secretary Denis McDonough said: “There is no dispute that veterans who wish to use all 36 months of their Montgomery benefits can do so. What congress was giving veterans was a choice; but the fact that this choice came with consequences or fewer options than Mr. Rudisill would have preferred is not at all ‘hard to fathom.’ that is what congress routinely does.”

During oral arguments – justice Brett Kavanaugh seemed skeptical: “It’s not a revocation of your entitlement.” Kavanaugh said to Tseytlin. “After you use up your Montgomery, the thing that caps you is the — is the 48-month limit. So, you still can get your post-9/11 after using up Montgomery.”

While Chief Justice John Roberts signaled his agreement with Rudisill. “It seems to me to be a pretty raw deal to say you’re going to lose – you’re entitled – if you hadn’t done anything other than the 9/11, you’d be entitled to this, but because you served additional time you don’t get the whole 9/11, you’ve got to exhaust this less generous plan first,” Roberts said.

Listen to the oral arguments here.

Attorneys general from the District of Columbia and 33 states – including Illinois’ Kwame Raoul – have signed a brief in support of Rudisill’s position.

The case has vast implications … if the court were to decide in favor of Rudisill, 1.7 million veterans could be eligible for more benefits.

“This feels like I’m serving my fellow veterans by pushing this forward,” he said.

For Rudisill — who dreamed of serving his country, and later wished to bolster soldiers’ spirits on the battlefield – the most important impact of his military career may come in court.

“I did earn these benefits, but yes, this case has taken on a seriousness much deeper than me on my own,” he said.

Battle over benefits: Army vet’s Supreme Court fight for G.I. Bill could impact 1.7 million soldiers (2024)
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