A veteran of the war in Iraq who says she was misclassified as an out-of-state resident when she applied to a North Carolina college will deliver a petition in Chapel Hill Thursday -- and then a lawsuit to federal court in Raleigh -- asking the UNC system to improve the way it treats student veterans.
Hayleigh Perez' petition has garnered more than 145,000 signatures in the three weeks it's been posted online and her story has been carried around the country as a symbol of what can go wrong when veterans try to use the benefits they were promised when they volunteered to serve.
"This has been so hurtful," Perez said. "My husband and I sat down and decided this is where we wanted to be together, this is where we wanted to raise a family, and we bought a home here. This is where my house is. This is where my property taxes are paid. This is where I have my driver's license.
"If I'm not a North Carolina resident, I guess I don't have a home state."
Perez has the support of a North Carolina-based organization, Student Veterans Advocacy Group, as well as Change.org, the online petition platform that claims 20 million users worldwide.
Countless veterans around the country have had similar problems since changes made to the Post-9/11 GI Bill took effect last year, in some cases reducing the amount of money the Department of Veterans Affairs will pay to for their education.
Perez, a native of Iowa, joined the Army in 2005 at age 19, she said, as a way to leave home and a way to contribute to society. She went to Fort Jackson, S.C., for basic training, then Fort Sam Houston, Texas, and, in 2006, to Fort Bragg, where she completed her training as a radiology specialist.
She remained stationed at Bragg, and deployed to Iraq for 14 months with the 36th Area Support Medical Company, which took care of prisoners and coalition forces at the huge Camp Bucca in southern Iraq.
While in Iraq, she said, she kept her apartment in Fayetteville. She came back to it when her deployment ended.
While she was in the Army, Perez was taking online college courses and earned a bachelor's degree.
Back in Fayetteville, Perez fell in love with another soldier, a medic for the 82nd Airborne. They married in 2008 and bought a house in Hoke County.
Early the next year, the Army sent Perez' husband to Texas, on a recruiting assignment, and then she got orders to go to there, too.
"We knew it was temporary," Perez said. "We didn't try to sell our house or anything. We knew we were coming back."
When her assignment ended, Perez got out of the military, and remained in Texas with her husband. She had a daughter and stayed home to raise her.
Inconsistencies in system
As her husband's assignment neared its end last year, Perez said the couple asked the Army to send him back to Fort Bragg, which they considered home. Last fall -- as soon as they knew they would be coming back to North Carolina -- she applied to colleges that had the courses she would need to get her masters degree and become a physician assistant. She planned to start in January of this year.
She said she sent the same application materials to each school, and was accepted to both UNC-Pembroke and Fayetteville State University, both part of the UNC system. But while FSU recognized her as a state resident for tuition purposes, UNC-Pembroke did not.
"I thought it was a mistake," Perez said, and she appealed, but was denied after a hearing she describes as "like being in criminal court." She especially needed some courses that were offered at Pembroke, including one that was not offered that semester at FSU.
In the past, the GI Bill would cover tuition at public universities up to the highest rate charged for in-state students in that state. But last year, changes approved by Congress capped tuition payments at public universities to the actual in-state rate for the particular school the veteran attended. Veterans attending public schools as out-of-state students would have to make up the difference between the in-state and out-of-state rates.
For Perez, that was more than $4,600 for one semester at Pembroke.
"I took it out of my daughter's college fund," she said.
A lengthy section of North Carolina's general statutes describes who can be considered an in-state resident for the purpose of tuition. It says that active-duty military members and those in the N.C. National Guard should be treated as in-state residents, and it makes provisions for dependents of active-duty military members.
It doesn't say anything about post-9/11 veterans.
UNC spokeswoman Joni Worthington could not say why one school in the system would consider Perez a state resident and another would not. But she said that Perez' appeal went before a state panel for consideration, and panel members found that in her case, the law had been properly applied.
She said the university system is considering a "shared services" approach to determining students' residency status, so that the consideration is made one time and used for any school to which the student applies.
Now, Worthington notes, with her husband back in North Carolina and still in the military, Perez, as his dependent, would pay in-state rates at any university or community college in the UNC system.
Perez said she should be charged the in-state rate simply because she is a North Carolina resident, and always was, even while she stayed in Texas while her husband was posted there.
Now at private college
Perez is now attending classes at Methodist University in Fayetteville, a private school. The GI bill, which pays up to $17,500 of private school tuition, is covering the entire cost, she said.
Perez said she will stay at Methodist, but is fighting to have UNC revamp the way it treats veterans. Her petition asks the Board of Governors and the university president to mandate that all UNC schools properly apply the rules for determining residency status and review other veterans' cases.
After delivering a copy of the petition to an administration representative, Perez said she will go to Raleigh with Jason Thigpen, founder and president of the Student Veterans Advocacy Group, and file a suit in federal court claiming that the UNC system, its board of governors and its schools discriminate against veterans.
Thigpen said the suit will ask that UNC be required to provide facilities, services and resources to veterans as it does other minority groups. He cited N.C. State University as one that is supportive to student veterans, but said most don't provide services that veterans need, especially those who are dealing with PTSD.
Thigpen, also an Army vet, said his group has been successful in helping veterans appeal their residency determinations at UNC system schools. He would like to see the state legislature change the law to specify that veterans be treated as in-state residents, as some 15 states have done.
"The GI bill was a loan that each service member made to each service," Thigpen said. "When they come home and use it, that's paying back that loan.
"We're not asking for any more or less than what we deserve."