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Virginia education program cuts for military families spark backlash

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Virginia education program cuts for military families spark backlash


Kristen Fenty of Virginia Beach says her daughter Lauren only got one moment of physical proximity to the father she never got a chance to know. It happened when she was a baby, still small enough to be lifted onto her father’s casket.

As a room full of government officials listened Monday, Fenty told the group that her daughter — who was 28 days old in 2006 when her dad, Lt. Col. Joe Fenty, was killed in a helicopter crash — is now 18, preparing to go to college and hoping to eventually go to medical school.

But a tuition waiver program Fenty assumed would help pay for her daughter’s education, the Virginia Military Survivors and Dependents Education Program, has been thrown into limbo due to state leaders’ controversial efforts to cut the program’s growing costs.

“Societies that do not share the cost of war topple,” Fenty said, adding that she hopes the Virginia General Assembly will “right this wrong.”

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At the first meeting of a bipartisan task force Gov. Glenn Youngkin convened to study the VMSDEP program and its growing financial impact on Virginia’s public higher education system, Youngkin administration officials and General Assembly members said they were committed to listening to military families and see their well-being as a top policy priority. Fenty was one of several military spouses and veterans selected to serve on the task force, which she called “both an honor and an agony.”

Over the course of several hours Monday afternoon at the Virginia War Memorial building in Richmond, public officials mostly took a rhetorical beating from military veterans and Gold Star spouses who said they felt betrayed by an insular, out-of-touch political class.

“These past two months have shown me the ugly side of Virginia’s government,” said task force member Donna Lewis, a mother of three whose husband was killed in combat in Iraq. “Countless senators and delegates we met with said they were told the impact on our families would be minimal.”

Lewis said she hoped the task force would be productive, but was skeptical after watching what she called “institutional betrayal in its highest form.”

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General Assembly leaders have pointed to data showing the VMSDEP program, which provides tuition waivers to spouses and children of military members killed or permanently disabled as a result of their service, has grown exponentially over the last five years. With VMSDEP beneficiaries essentially given the opportunity to go to college for free, some Virginia universities have raised concerns that they can’t continue absorbing the costs of enrolling a growing number of VMSDEP beneficiaries that don’t pay tuition. Those added costs, some policymakers have argued, will ultimately be felt by taxpayers at large or by tuition-paying students who might have less ability to pay than families receiving military benefits.

According to data presented by state officials, VMSDEP participation has grown by nearly 350% over the last five years, jumping from 1,400 students in 2019 to 6,400 in 2023.

The revised program imposes a stricter Virginia residency requirement, prevents the waivers from being used for advanced degrees or a second undergraduate degree and requires participants to first pursue other forms of financial aid and only use VMSDEP for remaining costs.

The attempted trimming of the program enraged military veterans and their families, who have bristled at the idea they’re becoming a burden on public universities that they say don’t seem particularly hard up for cash. Supporters of the VMSDEP program also contend it’s a benefit earned through the sacrifices of adults and children alike and shouldn’t be tied to a family’s ability to pay like other forms of financial aid. Policymakers’ attempts to shield current VMSDEP beneficiaries from the changes fell short, the critics argue, by being unclear and leaving many families uncertain about their status.

The General Assembly is already planning to reconvene later this month to undo the changes to the VMSDEP program and take a closer look at its eligibility rules and how they could be reformed. The task force, made up of General Assembly members, cabinet officials, higher education officials, veteran services officials and military families themselves, is supposed to be studying VMSDEP and issuing recommendations for the 2025 legislative session.

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“You have made numbers come alive,” Youngkin Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera told the crowd at the conclusion of Monday’s meeting. “And that’s what matters. And it’s emotional.”

House of Delegates leaders have specified their chamber will return on June 28 and intend to fully reverse the VMSDEP changes. Speaking with reporters after Monday’s meeting, House Appropriations Chairman Luke Torian, D-Prince William, said he and others who supported the VMSDEP changes had sincere concerns about the program’s growth and were trying to look out for the state’s best interests.

“Obviously, from what we’re hearing, it went sideways,” Torian said. “We’re going to move forward. We’re going to address the concerns.”

The plan for the state Senate is less clear, but Senate Majority Leader Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, said the Senate expects to announce more detail later this week.

Senate Finance and Appropriations Chair Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, attended Monday’s task force meeting virtually and gave only brief introductory remarks.

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“There is no stronger supporter of our military families than I am,” said Lucas.

The task force was part of Youngkin’s response to a furor that erupted when the VMSDEP changes were included in a bipartisan budget deal approved on May 13. Though changes to VMSDEP were on the table in the General Assembly’s regular session, the final budget deal was mostly crafted behind closed doors and approved quickly.

At the time, both parties were eager to get the overdue budget done and avert the prospect of a government shutdown come July 1. But Youngkin, who signed the budget, and the General Assembly, which passed it by a wide margin, are now under pressure to come back before July 1 to reverse the VMSDEP changes and restore the program to its former state.

The task force’s first meeting mostly focused on introductions and taking public comment, almost all of which was infused with indignation at the officials listening from the other side of the table.

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Jason Redman, a former U.S. Navy Seal and Old Dominion University graduate who was badly wounded in Iraq, said people signing up for military service are given assurances that, if the worst happens, their loved ones will be taken care of.

“You’re saying that it is too hard to sustain this program to families that have buried a loved one for your freedom,” Redman said. “To warriors who have endured loss of limb, eyesight, function, disfigurement and permanent disability. … This is appalling.”

Brian Smith, a military veteran who said he now works as an eighth grade civics teacher, said that during his service he could never make promises to his daughter that he would be there for any particular holiday or birthday. Expecting VMSDEP to cover college costs, he said, was a promise he thought could be kept.

“What lesson am I taking back to my eighth graders about government?,” he said. “Can you help me out with that?”

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Samantha Willis for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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This article originally published on Virginia Mercury as “At task force meeting, military families rip ‘ugly side of Virginia’s government.’” Military Times has edited the headline.





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Virginia Baseball Signs Brian O’Connor to Contract Extension Through 2031

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Virginia Baseball Signs Brian O’Connor to Contract Extension Through 2031


Thursday was the day of contract extensions for the University of Virginia athletics department.

One hour after announcing that Tony Bennett had signed a contract extension to remain the Virginia men’s basketball head coach through April 2030, UVA director of athletics Carla Williams announced that Brian O’Connor had agreed to a contract extension that keeps him as the head coach of the Virginia baseball program through the 2031 season.

“I’m excited every single day I come to Disharoon Park and look forward to the opportunity to sustain this championship college baseball program,” Brian O’Connor said. “The success we’ve had in our time at Virginia is a testament to the university’s commitment, the elite talent on the field, the loyalty of our baseball staff and the dedication of all those who support this program.”

The extension comes at a good, but busy time for O’Connor, who is currently in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska preparing to coach the Cavaliers at the 2024 College World Series. O’Connor, who took over as the UVA baseball head coach in 2004, has led the program to seven College World Series appearances, each of which have come since 2009, second-most in the country over that span. Virginia is back in the College World Series for the second year in a row and for the third time in the last four years.

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18 of Virginia’s 21 NCAA Tournament appearances have come under O’Connor and the Cavaliers made 14-straight NCAA Tournaments from 2004 to 2017. O’Connor’s current winning percentage of .704 is the highest of any active college coach and his 885 wins are the fourth-most of any program since 2004. In O’Connor’s 21 seasons leading the program, Virginia has produced 98 MLB Draft picks, including 15 first round picks, and 31 players who have made MLB debuts.

“We are incredibly fortunate to have Brian O’Connor leading our program,” Carla Williams said. “He has established a championship program, in every sense and we’re looking forward to continuing that legacy for many years to come in Charlottesville.”

O’Connor will look to lead Virginia to a second national title this week in Omaha. UVA’s run at the College World Series begins on Friday at 2pm (ESPN), when the Cavaliers take on ACC rival North Carolina at Charles Schwab Field in Omaha.

PREVIEW: Virginia Baseball Opens 2024 College World Series vs. UNC Friday



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Fallen tree causes phone line damage in Danville, West Virginia

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Fallen tree causes phone line damage in Danville, West Virginia


DANVILLE, W.Va. (WSAZ) – Since May 25, Debra Hopkins and her husband James haven’t had access to their phones after the tree directly behind their home fell into an unused trailer and destroyed the phone lines.

“I looked outside, and I thought ‘oh my God,’ and it ripped a hole through the ceiling. ” Debra said.

Debra has to drive more than 3 miles before she can get cell phone service. She said there’s no way to contact emergency services for her husband, who has a heart condition.

“It would take time for the ambulance to get here, so I’d be better off taking him in my car and run him to the hospital which takes about 20 minutes,” she said.

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The location of their home has always made it difficult to take James to appointments.

“It makes you feel helpless, and he is just now getting to the point where he can actually go to the doctor every three to six months instead of every week being in the hospital.”

Debra and her daughter, who used to live in the trailer behind her mother’s home, said they’ve tried to reach out.

The last time Frontier came to evaluate the situation, they left her a paper that said, “Once the tree is cut off our line and a new pole is placed, we can safely get your service back working. It’s been reported, they are very busy.”

Fallen tree causes phone line damage in Danville, West Virginia(WSAZ)

“She explained to them like I did about her dad and his heart condition, if he would have a heart attack we would be hurting.”

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Debra said she’s thankful no one was hurt because of the damages to the trailer, and although her daughter no longer lives there, she’s tried to reach out to Frontier multiple times since May 25 to ensure the safety of her parents.



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Summer warning for parents amid reports kids sickened from E. coli at Virginia lake

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Summer warning for parents amid reports kids sickened from E. coli at Virginia lake


The Virginia Department of Health is investigating after the state agency received multiple reports of gastrointestinal illnesses, including illnesses in children stemming from E. coli bacteria, among visitors to Lake Anna State Park in Spotsylvania, Virginia, during the Memorial Day holiday weekend.

The state health department told ABC News as of June 12, 20 of the reported cases stem from Shiga toxin-producing E. coli bacteria, five cases are of hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) cases and 10 cases remain under investigation. Those who have reported falling ill started getting sick between May 27 and June 4 and at least 9 people have reported being hospitalized. The VDH said it is awaiting additional results from lake water testing conducted by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality on June 11.

Lake Anna state park in Virginia pictured in 2020.

STOCK PHOTO/Getty Imagesa

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“We hope that those hospitalized continue to recover and can return home to their families soon,” Dr. Olugbenga O. Obasanjo, the Rappahannock Health District health director, said in a statement. “This is an ongoing investigation with the health department, and we will likely continue to learn about the situation in the coming days.”

According to the VDH, those who fell ill were reported to have swam in Lake Anna or had otherwise been exposed to the 13,000 acre lake, one of the most popular lakes in Virginia. However, the health department said they have not been able to confirm whether lake exposure or a portion of the lake is causing illnesses and the agency did rule out illness caused by harmful algal bloom as current algae activity in the lake is at its typical level.

The state health agency also added that although the department doesn’t have enough information to issue a swimming advisory, it does “encourage caution when swimming” and encourages the general public to follow swimming and boating safety tips.

These include:

  • Never drink untreated water.
  • Shower or bathe after swimming to wash off possible germs and contaminants.
  • Avoid swimming if you have any cuts or open wounds.
  • Avoid swimming near storm drains along natural waters.
  • Avoid swimming if you are experiencing vomiting or diarrhea.
  • Avoid any water with a green film on the water and keep pets out of water with a green film, which can indicate an algal bloom with toxins.
  • Avoid swimming for three days after a heavy rain. Storm water can contain germs from sewage, polluted storm water and land runoff.
  • Wash hands after using the bathroom and before preparing and eating food.
  • Dispose human waste properly by discharging boat sewage at marinas with a pump-out unit or dump station.

What to know about E. coli

Escherichia coli, often shortened to E. coli, is a type of bacteria commonly found in the environment, food, water, and the bodies of people and animals. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most E. coli bacteria are harmless, but there are strains that can cause illness, and E. coli illness in children can be more severe than illness in adults.

E. coli infections can cause various symptoms and issues, such as a high fever, severe stomach cramps, bloody or watery diarrhea, vomiting, urinary tract infections, pneumonia, sepsis, and more. Children under 5, older adults over 65 and those with weakened immune systems are at a higher risk of infection.

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Shiga toxin-producing E. coli or STEC, in particular, can cause hemolytic uremic syndrome or HUS, which the CDC notes can lead to kidney failure, permanent health issues, or even death.

Anyone who notices diarrhea or vomiting lasting more than two days, bloody stool or urine, a fever higher than 102°F, or signs of dehydration or HUS should seek medical care immediately. Signs of HUS, a medical emergency, include little or no urination, loss of pink color in cheeks and inside the lower eyelids, unexplained bruising or rash of tiny red spots, blood in urine, fatigue, crankiness, or decreased alertness.

E. coli illnesses are treated in a variety of ways, according to the CDC, including with increased fluid intake, anti-diarrheal medication and the use of antibiotics.



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