When Alan Gross landed in Havana in early 2009, he looked the part of someone arriving on a tourist visa: cargo pants, loose cotton shirt, Rockport shoes. He usually traveled with Jewish humanitarian groups. He did not identify himself as an agent of the US government.
Gross was in Cuba on behalf of Development Alternatives, Inc. (DAI), an international development contractor in Bethesda. DAI in turn had a $28.3 million contract with the US Agency for International Development to finance communication systems for faith-based groups in Cuba.
On Wednesday, Cuba agreed to release Gross from prison, where he's been held for the past five years. This is the story of how he got there.
On his first trip, Gross brought in enough equipment to set up the first of three systems for wi-fi hotspots that could provide unrestricted Internet access for Cuban Jews. He carried his telecommunications equipment in backpacks and carry-on bags.
Gross, who graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University with a masters degree in social work, had worked in international development for years—he helped farmers in emerging countries market their goods, worked with small businesses in the Middle East, and helped get a school built in Pakistan.
In 2001 he formed the Joint Business Development Center, a firm focused on setting up information and communication systems in developing countries. He eventually built and managed approximately 150 Internet-access points in remote areas of the world.
Gross’s kits typically contained modems that could access satellites, as well as laptops and cell phones. He called them “telco in a bag.” His contracts, some with USAID, took him to Europe, Ukraine, Israel, Gaza, Afghanistan, Iraq, and other parts of the world.
He seemed perfectly suited for the USAID job. In addition to his experience setting up communications systems in other countries, he had traveled to Cuba, had worked on USAID contracts and had experience with DAI. He would set up satellite communications systems for Cuba’s Jewish community of about 1,500. He wanted to help Cuban Jews connect with the rest of the world, Judy Gross says; he would also make an estimated $500,000. He signed on as a subcontractor to DAI in February 2009.
Gross was aware that the US and Cuba had strained relations, and the Communist government maintained strict control over its citizens. But since he was working on a USAID contract, Judy says, he figured he was safe.
“I don’t think he understood how much risk he was at, initially,” says Professor William LeoGrande, a Cuban expert at American University.
That was, to say the least, naive. “The Cubans don’t have a live-and-let-live policy about anything, much less a US government agent installing communications equipment,” says Phillip Peters, a Cuban expert and former State Department official who writes the Cuban Triangle blog. "Going to Cuba is not like going to Connecticut."
According to trip reports obtained by the Associated Press and made public in a subsequent lawsuit, Gross asked members of Jewish humanitarian groups to pack some of the equipment and bring it through customs.
Gross submitted detailed plans to DAI, which approved every aspect of the project, down to each cell phone and Internet installation.
There were signs Gross knew he might have been bringing in sophisticated equipment that would raise suspicions. On one occasion, he arrived with three Broadband Global Area Network devices, or BGANs. BGANs use a satellite signal to connect computers or phones to the Internet. Gross wrote in one of his trip reports that he hoped to throw off Cuban authorities by placing tape over their brand names.
Gross knew he was veering close to spycraft, but USAID is not supposed to be in the business of running clandestine operations.
By email, USAID spokesman Matt Herrick told Washingtonian earlier this year: “In non-permissive environments, the fact that our efforts might not be welcome, does not make them illegal, and discreet does not equal covert.”
In fact, USAID has veered from helping farmers market their crops to subverting elected governments. USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives funds and trains political protest groups who actively work with opposition leaders against regimes that the US wants to change. The Associated Press reported earlier this year that USAID built a social media service called ZunZuneo with the goal of undermining the Cuban government (it vanished in 2012; the agency took the unusual step of rebutting AP's story with a listicle). Another operation recruited Cuban hip-hop artists.
After one or two trips, Gross started to see he might be in jeopardy.
“This is very risky business in no uncertain terms,” he wrote in one trip report to DAI. “Provincial authorities are apparently very strict when it comes to unauthorized use of phone frequencies . . . Detection usually means confiscation and arrest of users.”
In September 2009, between his fourth and final trips to Cuba, USAID summoned Alan Gross to its headquarters in the Reagan Building to report on his work in Cuba. In a PowerPoint presentation, he talked about the risks he had encountered. Neither agency officials or DAI representatives commented, according to his wife, Judy Gross.
At home in Potomac after his fourth trip, he told Judy he thought he was being followed.
But he returned to Cuba. On Thursday, December 3, Cuban authorities showed up at Gross's hotel and arrested him. It was about an hour after he'd phoned Judy to say he was wrapping up his fifth trip and would see her the next day. He was convicted of crimes against the state and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Did Alan Gross know that he might be breaking Cuban law by bringing in the equipment and setting up communications systems?
“Alan was a risk-taker,” says Judy, “but he trusted everybody. I guess you could call that naive.”
Alan Gross sued the US government and DAI in federal court for $60 million in November 2012. He charged DAI with “gross negligence” for sending him on covert missions without proper training. In an affadavit filed in March 2013, he alleged that the US was negligent as well, and said he was never “aware or warned that activities contemplated by this USAID and DAI-sponsored project were crimes in Cuba.”
In the same document he allowed: “I certainly was aware of the strained and often difficult relations between the US and Cuban Governments since 1950.”
Documents filed in the lawsuit surfaced some shoddy and embarrassing aspects of USAID's and the State Department’s programs in Cuba. Gross wrote trip memos “warning of the riskiness of his covert work and the perils if he got caught,” according to court documents. The reports were shared with USAID.
US District Judge James Boasberg dismissed the lawsuit against the US because the government “retains immunity for injuries suffered in foreign countries.” But he added that the court is “in no way condoning what happened to Gross or implying he is to blame.”
Boasberg declined to dismiss Gross’s case against DAI. In May, 2013, DAI agreed to a secret settlement with Gross and paid the family an undisclosed sum.
USAID administrator Rajiv Shah was not with the agency when it approved the contract with DAI that wound up sending Gross to a Cuban prison. (Shah announced Wednesday he would step down as head of USAID next February.)
Shah, 41, has had little to say in public about Alan Gross. According to Herrick, Shah “met in person” with Judy Gross. She and her lawyers say the meeting never happened.
For four years after Gross was convicted, the US government took the position that he was unfairly detained. It refused to negotiate and called for his unconditional release. Gross lived in a hospital prison cell with two Cubans. He lost 100 pounds. One of his teeth fell out. While he was imprisoned, his mother died. The Cubans had denied his request to see her before she passed away.
Meanwhile, Judy Gross had to go it alone. She moved out of their home in Montgomery County and found an apartment in DC. With attorney Scott Gilbert, she lobbied for her husband’s release. Both visited Gross in Cuba, as did several members of Congress.
The State Department began negotiating in secret with Cuban officials earlier this year. The Cubans demanded that the US release three of their nationals who were convicted of spying in 1998 in exchange for Gross's freedom. With the help of the Vatican, the US and Cuba agreed to swap prisoners.
On December 17, President Obama announced Gross had been freed and that the United States planned to normalize relations with Cuba.
Alexandria Public Schools teacher Ryan Suto was lucky today's schedule only featured administrative meetings. Suto, who teaches English as a Second Language, ducked out of work at 1:30 so he could get to Penn Social and raise a glass to the DC Council's vote approving the use of city funds to assemble the land for a new stadium for his beloved DC United soccer team.
"Luckily, since there were no classes today, it was okay," he said, wearing one of the freshly minted T-shirts United was giving out at the door.
Nearly an hour after the Council voted unanimously to spend up to $150 million on the nine-acre site on Buzzard Point in Southwest, United players and front-office staff walked into the Penn Quarter bar, trailed by their most fervent supporters, in celebration of a public-private partnership designed to produce the most expensive stadium in Major League Soccer history. The 20,000-seat venue, which could open in time for the 2017 season, is being touted by DC's politicos as a signature achievement in economic development.
"Vamos!" said Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser, whose push to remove a land swap with the development firm Akridge for the Frank D. Reeves Center at valuable 14th and U streets, Northwest, actually complicated the stadium deal in its final steps.
"This is a great day for the District of Columbia," said Council member Jack Evans, a longtime proponent of stadium development deals.
But a repeat of the apartments, condominiums, offices, shops, and restaurants that swept through Navy Yard after the construction of Nationals Park isn't guaranteed. A $200,000 study published last month on the stadium's cost and potential benefits stated that "Buzzard Point is highly unlikely to repeat the rapid large-scale development boom."
Still, United's most die-hard fanatics are offering to jump-start the investment. Back in June 2013, when DC officials and the team first announced the stadium plan, Donald Wine suggested that he would move to Southwest DC so he could live just blocks from soccer.
"That's the idea, now it's a reality," said Wine, an attorney and a member of the Screaming Eagles, a fan club that gets rowdy in the stands at RFK Stadium, the crumbling, 53-year-old American football coliseum in which United has been stuck since entering MLS in 1996.
As for Wine's fellow superfans who skipped work today, they feel their team is closer to equal footing with Washington's franchises in more popular American sports leagues.
"We're like the Green Bay Packers of MLS," said Jayme Thysell, a government contractor who moonlights as the drummer for the Screaming Eagles and other supporter groups.
Okay, but the Packers are operated as a nonprofit public trust in a small city in Wisconsin. United is in a major East Coast city and is owned by Erick Thohir, an Indonesian media billionaire with holdings around the world.
"I'm talking about earning trophies and tradition," Thysell clarified. "DC United fans, we act more like a small-market team."
He might be on to something there. While many players from the Nationals, Wizards, or Washington's NFL team might be easily recognized around town, soccer players can slip in and out of a crowd without much notice (I didn't realize till well after the event that the short blond guy with whom I exchanged brief pleasantries by a buffet table was actually forward Chris Rolfe, who scored six goals in 21 games during United's 2014 season). Thysell did have one idea to build United's profile around Washington, though it's unlikely the team would go in for it.
"What this team needs is a bad boy or a diva," he said. "I don't want a Ray Rice, but we need that bad boy to get in the news so the team gets in the news."
There might have been a malcontent somewhere in the building. The fire alarm went off about 3 PM, forcing the team's players and hangers-on to evacuate the basement bar and head back into the daylight. The all-clear sounded ten minutes later.
Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.
There are a lot of places around here to see great holiday-light displays, but the seasonal decorations don't just make an impression at ground level. Washington—and most everywhere else—is so lit up during this time of year that the added glow from millions of tiny bulbs is visible from outer space.
Nighttime lights shine 20 to 50 percent brighter around Christmas and New Year's than the rest of the calendar, according to images taken by the Suomi NPP satellite, an orbiting installation operated by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
According to NASA's findings, the light given off by populated areas, not surprisingly, starts getting brighter on Black Friday and continues through January 1 before fading down to typical levels. A team at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt compared images of light intensity between 2012 and 2013. The differences in light intensity aren't as noticable in urban centers, which typically shine brightest regardless of season, but suburbs and exurbs still increase their luminosity between 30 and 50 percent. The image above, focusing on the mid-Atlantic region, shows a solid belt of increased light intensity between Washington and Baltimore. The darker the green dots, the brighter the lights are.
Here's a video from NASA explaining the science:
Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.
A new television series starring Washington Post reporter Geoff Edgers premieres tonight on the American Heroes Channel.
Edgers, who became the Post’s national arts correspondent in September, is the host of Secrets of the Arsenal, which uses rare and hidden artifacts to explore some of history’s most important stories. The cameras follow Edgers as he scours historic vaults around the country and discovers everything from a trophy pistol found on a World-War-II-era German submarine to a shotgun owned by a notorious stagecoach robber.
“The key is you go places, and bring your viewers, where they can’t normally go,” Edgers says.
Although most visitors won’t get the access Edgers and his crew enjoyed, much of the show was filmed in popular Washington-area tourist destinations. Among the sites the show visits are Ford’s Theatre, the National Archives, and the National Security Agency’s National Cryptologic Museum.
“The big challenge on a show like this is telling stories about some of the most important moments in history and making them seem fresh,” Edgers says. “Everybody has written a book, done a movie, or done a documentary on every war we can think of. So how do you put a fresh spin on it? Our approach was to find a cool object that has something to do with the subject and then focusing on that.”
Edgers spent 12 years at the Boston Globe before joining the Post in August, but this isn’t his first crack at television. He produced a PBS documentary about his effort to reunite The Kinks, and also hosted the Travel Channel's Edge of America. (“For my first episode, I had to castrate a bull,” he says.)
In addition to Edgers’ reporting, Secrets of the Arsenal uses historical reenactments to appeal to what Edgers hopes will be an audience that extends beyond the hard-core history buffs. “My hope is that [the show will appeal to] somebody kind of like me,” he says, “somebody who’s really into great stories, who’s read David McCullough, and David Halberstam’s book on the Korean war, but isn’t collecting [military] uniforms.
Tonight's episode airs at 10 PM, although the show will air the rest of its episodes at 9 on Tuesdays.
Find Luke Mullins on Twitter at @lmullinsdc.
The Carlyle Group is known for sending its investors clever thank-you videos every December, but this year's reaches either new heights or an unprecedented low, depending on how you feel about 65-year-old billionaires trying to lay down beats. This year's clip, sent to Carlyle's investors on Monday night, features the company's cofounder, David Rubenstein, stepping into a recording booth and rapping a verse.
Takes a lot of brains to do what we do,
Looking for a way to make some dough for you.
Energy, commodity, we do it all,
So pick up the phone and give us a call.
Corporate mezzanine, private equity,
Carlyle Group is the place to be.
We’re global, we’re mobile, we’re aiming to please.
Only goal in mind: serve our LPs
It appears Rubenstein took inspiration from his business partner, Dr. Dre. Carlyle acquired 25 percent of Dre's Beats Electronics in 2013 for $500 million; Apple purchased the company in August for $3 billion, doubling Carlyle's investment.
Around DC, Rubenstein is known for being the financial savior of many cultural treasures, including the Kennedy Center, pandas, the Washington Monument, and the Magna Carta. We believe he is now also the first Washingtonian of the Year to drop rhymes.
Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.
Metro passengers are still working their way out of Tuesday morning's hellish delays caused by a ruptured water main near Metro Center, which flooded the Silver, Blue, and Orange line tracks for most of rush hour. The burst pipe briefly flooded the tracks, forcing tens of thousands of commuters to seek refuge on the Red Line or shuttle buses.
Today's commute will go down as one of the one of the worst in recent memory, but not because of anything Metro did. The culprit is a 12-inch, cast-iron pipe laid down in 1953, according to DC Water. Even more incredible is that at 61 years old, the busted pipe is "actually on the young side" for Washington's water infrastructure, says DC Water spokeswoman Pamela Mooring. The median age of the District's water system is 79 years old—beyond most pipes' useful lifespan—while the sewer lines are even older.
Crippled infrastructure isn't anything specific to DC—the American Water Works Association estimates it will cost $1 trillion to upgrade the entire country's water systems over the next 25 years—but the systems here are especially critical. The American Society of Civil Engineers diagnosed DC's drinking-water infrastructure with needing $1.6 billion in upgrades over the next 20 years and the sewer system needing $2.5 billion in fixes.
The District endures about 400 water main breaks a year, with more coming in the winter as pipes react to fluctuating ground temperatures and an excess of cold water, Mooring says.
DC Water is in the early phases of a ten-year, $3.8-billion capital improvement project that includes funding for several projects, including pipe replacement, but fixing the system completely will take much longer than that. Mooring says the utility recently switched from replacing one-third of 1 percent of its water mains every year to a full 1 percent annually, meaning the city will have all-new pipes by the early 22nd century.
"But we were on a 300-year schedule," she says.
In the more immediate future, Metro has resumed its regular schedule on the Silver, Blue, and Orange lines, but it'll take DC Water up to 12 hours to fix the busted pipe, causing a closure of 12th Street, Northwest, between E and F streets.
Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.
Washington-area commuters who preferred dulcet traffic advisories between segments of All Things Considered will have to make do with more manic, commercial-radio reports to get home in the afternoons, following WAMU's announcement that it is cutting traffic reports after the morning shift.
WAMU's marketing director, Kathleen Allenbaugh, tells Washingtonian the decision comes after market research led the station to conclude public-radio audiences just don't have that big of a thirst for traffic reporting. The review followed a few listeners complaining that there were too many traffic reports throughout the weekdays, Allenbaugh says.
"We know that there are other traffic sources," she says, noting that few look to public radio for round-the-clock traffic updates. Allenbaugh also says that WAMU's research showed that more people are relying on social media and smartphone apps for commuting information. The other big contributing factor is more public-radio listeners tune in at home than in their cars.
But WAMU is keeping its morning traffic reports by retired NBC4 reporter Jerry Edwards, who broadcasts four times an hour from his home in Florida. Edwards and afternoon traffic jockey Mike Cremedas work for Radiate Media, a DC company that supplies traffic reports to area radio stations. Allenbaugh says WAMU is keeping Edwards in the mornings "because we feel the commute is so complex."
Edwards will file his last traffic report at 10:04 AM, Allenbaugh says. WAMU's news staff will report on major traffic incidents if needed.
Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.
National Christmas Tree
An obvious choice, perhaps, but still worth the tourist-heavy trek. Located directly adjacent to the White House, it has more than 350 red, green, and white LED lights that can be viewed in all their brightness every night through New Year’s. Then again, shouldn’t we expect the White House to set an example of not leaving one’s lights up after Christmas Day?
When: Through January 1
Where: The White House
This is the much better federal light show, featuring elephants, sea lions, octopi, Komodo dragons, and other fauna in holiday-light form. And yes, there are Christmas-light pandas.
When: Through January 1
Where: Smithsonian National Zoo
Symphony of Lights
Columbia residents might bicker over developers’ plans for the Symphony Woods park, but there should be no argument over the allure of its annual holiday display, which this year adds a bike route to the usual walking and driving tours. If admission seems a bit steep, remember that the light show’s proceeds benefit the Howard County General Hospital.
When: Through January 4
Where: Symphony Woods at Merriweather Post Pavilion, Columbia
Cost: $20 per car, $45 for vans, and $125 for buses
Washington DC Mormon Temple
The local LDS headquarters decorates its temple and surrounding grounds with 600,000 bulbs, accompanied by nightly nativity scenes between 6 and 9. There are also live musical performances at 7 and 8 every night.
When: Through January 1
Where: 9900 Stoneybrook Dr., Kensington
Seneca Creek State Park
The Winter Lights Festival at Gaithersburg's Seneca Creek State Park dazzles with more than 300 displays and 65 illuminated vignettes. For an additional $2, car passengers can get prism glasses that make the show appear extra sparkly. (No special specs for drivers, natch.)
When: Through December 31
Where: Seneca Creek State Park, Gaithersburg
Cost: $12 Monday through Thursday, $15 Friday through Sunday
Winter Walk of Lights
It took more than three months for Meadowlark Botanical Gardens to transform itself into this winter light show. The park includes a scavenger hunt, family photo spots, and a tree decorated with 50,000 LED lights.
When: Through January 4
Where: 9750 Meadowlark Gardens Ct., Vienna
Cost: Ticket prices vary
Bull Run Festival of Lights
Take a drive through this two-and-a-half-mile-long light show, made up of 40,000 animated lights set to music. This event also includes a pop-up holiday village with rides, food, and shops.
When: Through January 3
Where: 7700 Bull Run Dr., Centreville
Cost: $15 per car Monday through Thursday, $20 per car Friday through Sunday
Another week in the NFL schedule down, another reminder that Washington's professional football team barely qualifies to be called one. While the season's not over yet, the team's professional chroniclers gave up hope long ago. Every Washington defeat brings a fresh set of downer reviews from the Washington Post's roster of sports columnists, and as you'll see from below, the malaise has only grown.
Washington's passers are being written off in print as quickly as they're being carted off the field, special teams are a dismissed as a gallery of dangerous buffoons, and reactions to yet another miserable squad under the Dan Snyder era have transformed from worry and anger to desperation and hoplessness. It's the pornography of Monday-morning quarterbacking—just how sad will it get? Read on for a timeline of how our terrible team has sapped the Post's writers of the will to even cover this pathetic franchise:
Week 1: Texas 17, Washington 6. One game in, Sally Jenkins smells a rat:
A 17-6 loss to the Houston Texans in the NFL’s Week 1 isn’t a season-definer, of course. But if this habit of making the shiny, happy best of lousy performances doesn’t stop, it will be. Hit rewind, and listen.
Week 2: Washington 41, Jaguars 10. Down goes RGIII! Mike Wise offers to help bury the corpse of the third-year quarterback's flailing career:
“You ever see a postgame locker room this happy after the face of the franchise and the number one free agent in the offseason went down?” I asked a longtime team employee.
“No,” he said, adding he’d rather not elaborate.
Week 3: Eagles 37, Washington 34. After a close loss, Dan Steinberg sees a dumpster fire in progress:
"Oh weird, a kickoff returned for a touchdown at a crucial moment. It’s actually not weird, you see, because Washington has regularly displayed stinking refuse fires on special teams about every other week for the past decade or so. There are so few disaster plays that Washington hasn’t explored on special teams."
Week 4: Giants 45, Washington 14. Wise writes off the first replacement quarterback:
The vehicle carrying the new and true believers of Kirk Cousins careened into a Prince George’s County embankment Thursday night, and the wreckage was total and complete: four good-night interceptions in nine second-half pass attempts.
Week 5: Seahawks 27, Washington 17. Steinberg forsees more doom, thanks to the special teams:
This week, the fake-field-goal-for-a-first-down narrowly sneaks past the messily failed onside kick, the ineffective pooch kick and the punt downed at their own 1. Tune in next week, when the Redskins’ special teams unit torches the team bench and releases stink bombs inside the locker room.
Week 6: Cardinals 30, Washington 20. Team sinks to 1-5; Wise is bored and sad:
"Personally, it really would be nice to write about a winning NFL team again. There’s only so much bad news you can be the bearer of before people start treating your stories like the team: If the destination is always the same, at some point you stop making the journey.
Week 7: Washington 19, Titans 17. Tom Boswell isn't swayed by a rare win:
"When losing franchises have comfort-food victories gifted to them, as the two-turnover, 11-penalty Titans helped Washington to this win, then a few days of healing for damaged confidence are in order. But this team’s knee-jerk flaw, season after season, is to use any good performance—or just a lucky win—to pound themselves on the back with self-congratulatory happy talk and please-the-owner boasts."
Week 8: Washington beat the Cowboys, and there was much rejoicing.
Week 9: Vikings 29, Washington 26. Griffin says "God has a plan." Wise sees no hope for salvation:
The Creator was unavailable for comment, but it’s clear in just scheduling the Vikings as a road game that the plan is either to inflict physical and psychological pain on the lads from Ashburn or to teach a severe lesson going forward: Preparing for an athletic contest is damn near impossible with this many distractions.
Week 11: Buccaneers 27, Washington 7. Jason Reid throws that ruinous question out there:
"As fans booed while exiting FedEx Field early in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s 27-7 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a question hung in the air: Are the Washington Redskins even worse than last season?"
Week 12: 49ers 17, Washington 13. Reid to Griffin: Get lost:
Before Griffin returned, Colt McCoy led the Redskins (3-8) to consecutive victories, including a road win against the NFC East-leading Cowboys. Now, the Redskins are reeling again and it’s easy to identify their biggest problem.
Week 13: Colts 49, Washington 27. Boswell joins Reid in trampling on Griffin's career's grave:
After McCoy’s third straight strong performance—in the other two, he was a key to victory—every Washington blunder or penalty won’t have to be seen through the distorting prism of “what did Griffin know and when did he know it?”
Week 14: Rams 24, Washington 0. Reid is out of explanations:
Even by their poor standards, the Redskins appeared inept while losing their fifth straight and being shut out for the first time since 2011. And in addition to the Redskins’ recurring on-field problems, the ongoing drama of their unstable quarterback situation continued to cast a shadow over the franchise.
Week 15: Giants 24, Washington 13. Boswell appears to have the bottom of the pit in sight:
Yet, in reality, this is the worst NFL product Washington has put on display in 50 years—losers of 19 of their past 22 games. And still in full “dive, dive” mode, heading for the depths.
Washington's final two disasters-in-waiting are home games against the playoff-contending Eagles and Cowboys. Barring a pair of shock victories, the Post will have to break new ground in coming up with depressing superlatives.
Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.
Jonathan Fields did not anticipate that when the Corcoran College of Art and Design was absorbed into the George Washington University, one of the effects would be having to scramble to keep the lights on at his Arlington apartment.
Fields, 27, spent six years in the Army before enrolling in Corcoran in 2013 as an undergraduate photography student. When Corcoran merged with GW over the summer, Fields assumed there would be no impact on receiving his veteran’s housing stipend to cover his living expenses. But on September 1, he woke up with $23.42 in his bank account. Fields got a $600 bridge loan from GW’s military and veterans office to buy groceries and pay the bills at home, but he’s now worried he won’t be able to cover what he owes to GW.
For serving in the Iraq War, Fields receives benefits under the Post-9/11 Veterans Education Assistant Act (also known as the New GI Bill), including tuition assistance, a housing allowance of about $2,100 per month, and a book stipend. The GI Bill covers up to $20,235 of tuition and fees at a private college. Many schools—including Corcoran and GW—participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program, an additional benefit in which tuition expenses above the nominal cap are split between the institution and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Fields received $18,077 in base GI Bill benefits for the 2013-14 academic year. Yellow Ribbon payments kicked in another $6,527 from the VA and $6,292 from Corcoran to cover the rest of his tuition. Corcoran also awarded Fields a scholarship of $3,000 per semester when he matriculated. But with his GI benefits covering 100 percent of his education and associated costs, the scholarship effectively turned into a cash refund. Fields used the money to pay his rent over the summer, when the GI Bill did not apply.
But GW does things differently. Although it officially honors Fields’s Corcoran award, GW applies scholarships and grants to tuition first, with the GI benefits paid afterward. The upshot: Fields won’t be getting that refund this year.
“Aside from screwing vets out of actual earned GI Bill benefits, they are also effectively screwing vets out of our awarded scholarships,” Fields tells Washingtonian.