Special Segment: Financial Forgiveness

November 11, 2009 9:40:53 AM PST
For some service members, a big motivator for joining the military is to get help paying for college. But many say that help is not enough. Now, two Chicago soldiers are on a mission to fill in the gap. Their group is less than a year old. It has helped only a couple of veterans so far but the South Siders who started it are determined to give troops financial forgiveness.

Hakki Gurkan is a tactical officer in the Chicago Police Department's 23rd District. He suits up daily to fight gangs and drugs. But not long ago, he suited up for a different war.

"I joined the Navy Reserves in 2002. Basically, I was inspired by the events of 9/11," said Gurkan.

Gurkan has served in Iraq, Afghanistan and turkey. He is still on active duty and could be deployed again before next summer. In the middle of it all, he says one of his biggest concerns was paying off student loans.

"My mother was going through chemotherapy and just with the stress of another deployment and her battling cancer," said Gurkan. "You know, the student loan, it was just another thing that I had to worry about."

Relief came through another soldier who he met while in Iraq.

After leaving active duty, Eli Williamson teamed up with his childhood friend, Roy Brown, to form a non-profit organization called "Leave No Veteran Behind." The organization uses donated money to pay off veterans' outstanding student loans. The South Siders joined the Army Reserves together to help pay for college. After graduating, they both experienced the gaps left in military's education payment plan. Brown still owes about $60,000 in college loans.

"Here I am dodging bullets and worried about IEDs and I have a $82.67 student loan ... company that's calling me and steadily harassing my mother about a student loan payment. So when I returned, I realized that I had defaulted on the loan and I realized this was an issue," said Roy Brown, Leave No Veteran Behind.

"I still owe upwards of over $70,000 of educational debt that the new GI Bill does not take care of because it does not work retroactively," said Williamson.

Though the organization is less than a year old, hundreds of troops have already signed up. Now Brown and Williamson have to raise enough money to help them. In exchange for debt forgiveness, the veterans must commit to 100 hours of community service.

For example, Gurkan volunteers in the Bronzeville neighborhood providing adult presence and safe passage for CPS students leaving school.

Organizers say getting vets to do community service is easy. Most are already active. The hard part is convincing the public that this is an area of need -- an outlet where they can actually serve the veterans.

"There's always the assumption being made that because you're a veteran, you automatically get access to a free education, but that's not necessarily the case. So we have to expend a lot of energy," said Williamson. "Just to explain to people how the GI Bill leaves some veterans behind."

Since both of the organizers are graduates of Chicago Public Schools, they steer much of their community service efforts toward CPS. They also point out this is just one issue that veterans face. They hope more people take an interest in veterans' causes.

For more information, visit www.leavenoveteranbehind.org.


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