Emails reveal state agency stockpiling money meant to help veterans
Millions of dollars from license plate sales are pouring in to help struggling Indiana veterans returning home from war. The problem is, those in need are being denied your support based on rules that have "timed out."
13 Investigates digs deeper and discovers internal documents that finally reveal why the state is stockpiling cash and turning veterans away.
"I am an Indiana Army National Guard veteran, Iraq, in desperate need of financial assistance. I have an eviction notice from my landlord, 10 days to vacate. I am married and have three young children and need help. Please."
Willie Ray Kimball was desperate. He sent that letter to the Military Family Relief Fund, which promises help for struggling veterans. It was July 2012, three years after wrapping up his tour of duty and putting his life on the line.
From thunderous explosions in the Middle East, to home in the tiny northern Indiana town of Wolcottville, Willie Ray's temporary jobs dried up.
So did his unemployment and bank account.
"We were literally at the end of our rope. We had nothing left to fall back on. It was really a bad time for us," said the soldier who ended up having to move his family into the homes of relatives.
It appears the State of Indiana knew what Willie Ray and other war veterans were up against when it created the Military Family Relief Fund.
But 13 Investigates found top state officials at Veterans Affairs more concerned about stockpiling money than getting cash into the hands of families in need.
In 2007, Indiana started making "Support our Troops" license plates and socking away up to $25 from each sale into the Relief Fund. By 2011, Hoosiers were driving in millions of dollars of support each year, while the Daniels administration unveiled new designs to grow the fund.
"Our hopes were finally up when we found this and we were just really looking forward to getting some help," recalled the young father.
Two days after sending his letter of desperation, Willie Ray got an answer from the IDVA.
"I wish we could help with our Military Relief Fund, but you are outside of our three-year window of eligibility," said Willie Ray, reading from the response he received.
Willie Ray was denied.
Veterans must apply for assistance within three years of returning from active duty. He missed the eligibility cutoff by seven months.
"It was really kind of a shot in the gut for me," he said.
13 Investigates discovered families like Willie Ray's were routinely sent away empty-handed.
Stacks of internal records and emails we obtained from the IDVA reveal the agency taking at least a dozen calls a month, from families needing help but outside of that narrow eligibility period.
In fact, the agency calculates helping all of those families for one year would have cost $720,000 - almost as much as the fund paid out since it started. (The fund has paid out just over a million dollars in six years.)
"That just doesn't make sense to me," said Willie Ray in disbelief.
With millions coming in, why weren't more veterans getting help? 13 Investigates found the answer in a report from the agency itself. The IDVA was trying to raise $40 million!
"Their intent was to have that money continue to build," said former IDVA Director Tom Applegate, who would only talk about the $40 million goal by phone.
"So that's kind of a figure we had in our mind that we would reach before we would open it up to other veterans," Applegate confirmed to 13 Investigates.
"Why do you need to save that much money before you can decide to start helping people?" Willie Ray questioned.
Last year, lawmakers did increase the time veterans could apply for the money from one year after their return home from deployment to three years.
It was still too little, too late for veterans like Willie Ray, who couldn't get a penny of the $5 million sitting in the trust fund when he asked for help.
"To be slapped with this saying 'No, we're not going to help you' was just...it hurt, honestly," said Kimball.
In Fortville, heartbreak added to a mix of pride and grief.
Indiana National Guardsman Nathan Hughes died unexpectedly in September 2011, related to medications to treat pancreatitis. His proud military family was awaiting insurance money and couldn't cover Nathan's funeral costs. They turned to the Military Family Relief Fund.
What happened next put law and compassion at odds.
Sgt. Steve Wise, former Chairman of the Veterans Affairs Commission, refused to talk about it and walked away from our cameras. 13 Investigates discovered Wise tried to make an exception to the rules.
In an email, he announced he was declaring "an emergency" and giving the Hughes family $6,500 - $1,500 more than allowed. But one commissioner refused to go along, expressing unease over violating the law.
Nathan Hughes' family didn't get the money. His mother says she took out a loan and buried him with full military honors. He got recognition from President Barack Obama and later, a letter from the IDVA which read in part:
"We are truly sorry for your loss and regret the law does not give us the latitude to make this grant."
The IDVA said Nathan Hughes' last return from deployment was seven years earlier, in 2004.
Chris Atkins, Indiana's Chief Financial Officer is now answering tough questions about the handling of the Military Family Relief Fund.
"Is it ever appropriate for an individual to decide they're going to ignore the three-year cap?," questioned 13 Investigates.
"I believe the three-year cap is set by statute," said Atkins. "We have to fix the problem of the fund and the fact that enough military families aren't getting this money. And I think the best solution is not to rely on any particular individual to make an ad hoc determination on who gets this money and who doesn't."
Money from the sale of plates is increasing rapidly and the fund is now up to $7.5 million. At the same time, fewer veterans are eligible to even apply.
The Pence administration missed a key opportunity to expand the limited time frame with lawmakers in session.
"Right now, we're looking for smart, sustainable effective solutions to get more of that money into the hands of our military families," Atkins explained.
"There may be people out there that don't have three months, or six months, or another year to wait to get help. They need help now!" Kimball responded.
The governor's staff says nothing is off the table when it comes to fixing the lack of access to these funds. Atkins says in January lawmakers will try to determine how to lift the three-year cap, without depleting the account.
At this point, that lofty $40 million dollar goal is no longer the driving force.
Resources for veterans
Military Family Relief Fund
Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs
Attn: Military Family Relief Fund
302 W. Washington St. Room E-120
Indianapolis, Indiana 46204
Applications and documentation may also be faxed to 317-232-7721
For more information, please contact Matthew Vincent at 317-232-3910 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
American Legion Indiana - Temporary Financial Assistance program
Veterans and families seeking assistance can call 317-630-1300.
HVAF of Indiana
HVAF of Indiana is a United Way organization dedicated to eliminating homelessness among veterans and families through education, prevention, supportive services and advocacy.
HVAF of Indiana, Inc.
964 N. Pennsylvania Street
Indianapolis, IN 46204