When Donna Lewis’ daughter Grace graduates from First Colonial High School on Thursday, she’ll have a picture of her father in her cap instead of one of him standing next to her. Jason Lewis was killed in 2007 while serving as a Navy SEAL in Iraq.

Because of her father’s death, Grace Lewis was eligible for college tuition assistance through a Virginia program that covers higher education costs for some military families. But the rising college freshman may not be able to receive the financial assistance because state lawmakers recently scaled back eligibility standards for the program in an effort to lighten the cost burden on Virginia’s public colleges and universities.

The rollout of the reforms to the Virginia Military Survivor and Dependent Education Program (VMSDEP) has caused a firestorm of pushback from military families who blame lawmakers for disregarding their plight and leaving them stranded without resources promised to them.

“The fact that the General Assembly, whose members have been largely insulated from the scars of war, did not believe our sacrifices were worthy of a thoughtful decision-making process before this language was drafted feels like institution betrayal,” said Donna Lewis, a member of a new task force charged with addressing the impacts of the recent changes to the program.

The task force met Monday at the Virginia War Memorial building in Richmond for the first of several sessions. Members listened to dozens of people over several hours who gave a snapshot of how VMSDEP has helped their families and how the program changes will disrupt their lives.

The program provides a tuition waiver to spouses and children of veterans who are killed, missing in action, taken prisoner or at least 90% permanently disabled as a result of military service or combat. It also provides up to a $2,200 annual stipend to offset the costs of room, board, books and supplies for qualified survivors and dependents of military service members.

Under changes adopted in the state budget this year, applicants have to be Virginia residents, the waiver could only be used for undergraduate degrees, and qualifying undergraduate students will have to apply for and use other eligible federal and state financial aid first.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin requested state lawmakers return to Richmond to take up the matter. House Speaker Don Scott confirmed the House would return in special session at the end of this month to discuss what the “unintended consequences” of the changes to the military survivor and dependent program.

Youngkin created the bipartisan Preserving VMSDEP task force May 15 to address concerns and the program’s long-term sustainability. The group is comprised of veterans, Gold Star family members, legislators, members representing the four branches of the armed services, and public colleges and universities. Gold Star families are spouses, children, parents, siblings or others whose loved one died in military service.

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