Cory Payne doesn’t hesitate when asked what was the most important thing he learned during his career in the Army.
“Take care of your own,” he said emphatically.
That was the motivation for Payne starting the Future Soldier/Sailor Program, an effort to steer his own – youngsters who sign up for military service – down a path to success, preferably by using the GI Bill to earn a college degree.
Payne teaches the free course at Mountwest Community & Technical College in Huntington, W.Va., which was named the nation’s best two-year college for veterans by The Military Times. The program is only 2 years old and is about to be adopted statewide by the West Virginia community college system.
The Army is especially interested in seeing it grow in hopes it will eliminate misconceptions about the GI Bill.
“The biggest lie in the military is the one every recruit tells his mom right after he joins,” Payne said. “They say ‘Momma, I’m going off for a couple of years so I can qualify for the GI Bill and come back and go to college.’
“They go off all right, but not many of them come back and go to college … and if they do, a lot of them get burned out because they do it the hard way.”
That’s firsthand experience talking. Payne told his mom he was leaving for a couple of years when he joined the Army in 1989. He did get a degree, graduating from Marshall University with a master’s in adult education in 2007.
“That’s more than a couple of years later,” Payne said, “and I definitely did it the hard way.”
Familiar Story for Vets
His story is typical of soldiers and sailors. That’s the reason he’s trusted to instruct young recruits on the potholes that could swallow their dreams before they ever get started.
Payne was 15 years into his Army career when he was told he was no longer employable by the military. He was an Army staff sergeant, had 30 people under his command and had served in the Desert Storm and Bosnia conflicts. His primary job was a motor transport operator, “which is a glorified way of saying I drove a truck,” but he liked it.
He was shooting to get at least 20 years, maybe 25, in before retiring when the Army told him he had to leave. Early in his career, he had injured his spine doing drills at Fort Hood. Doctors diagnosed it as a fractured spine, and the situation deteriorated over time.
“It’s kind of hard to drive a truck with a fractured spine,” Payne said. “They declared me medically unfit to serve and told me I had to get out.”
Just like that, Payne was faced with the same question nearly every member of the military dreads: What are you going to do next?
“I wanted to go to college,” he said. “But in all the time I was in the Army, no one ever talked to me about going to school. Not ever. I didn’t get any help from officers, and I sure as hell didn’t get any help from the VA.”
The Army, Payne concluded, wasn’t taking care of its own.
From Homeless to College Graduate
So he said goodbye and went back to his home in Huntington with no real direction. It showed. Within three months, he was divorced, spent time living out of his car and when that got repossessed, he was homeless and on the streets.
He decided it was time to look a little closer at the benefits he had earned serving his country. After quite a bit of reading, he realized that the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Program, designed to give soldiers with disabilities an employable skill, was a better fit than the GI Bill, which is designed for education.
“I’d never heard of Voc Rehab, but that essentially saved my life,” Payne said. “The Voc Rehab program paid for everything … tuition, fees, books, cost of living allowance … you name it, if I needed it to complete my degree, the program paid for it.”
Payne took maximum advantage of it. He enrolled at Marshall University in Huntington and went to school 12 months a year. He got an associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degree in three and a half years. This time when he finished, he knew where he was headed.
“When I was in the Army, nobody was there to help me get past all roadblocks they put up to get the benefits I was due,” Payne said. “I could have saved myself a whole lot of trouble and heartache if somebody had steered me straight.
“So I decided my job was to go back to what the Army taught me when I started: ‘Take care of your own’… help soldiers get through the frustration of making benefits like the GI Bill work for them.”
Get to Them Early
Payne decided it was best to get to soldiers before they start basic training, rather than wait until they are about to be discharged. Working with Dr. Steven Brown at Mountwest Community & Technical College, he developed a 16-week course that splits instruction time between the military and teachers at the college.
The military instructors go over things like military courtesy, customs, history, time management, rules and fitness. Payne uses his time to teach issues about personal finance, but focuses most of the instruction on getting an education while you’re in the military and getting the most you can from the GI Bill when you get out.
Payne has studied the GI Bill the way lawyers study law books. He shares as much knowledge as recruits are willing to absorb and wants them to stay in touch throughout their military career so he can continue helping them late in their careers as they wander through the maze of regulations.
“The goal of the Future Soldiers/Sailors Program is to keep the notion alive that these kids will go to college,” Payne said. “That’s important because a lot of things can happen along the way that distract them from the goal they told their momma they had when they joined. We want to be sure they do the right things so that when they get out, they’re ready to take advantage of the GI Bill benefits they earned.”
The Future Soldiers/Sailors Program is gaining attention nationally. Payne made a presentation at a national conference in Washington that drew interest from educators at several colleges across the country. He has sent out a 22-slide PowerPoint with details of the program and has already had a response from the University of Montana.
He is so well-versed on the often-frustrating and incomprehensible nuances of the GI Bill that that he spends part of his day combing various websites to find misinformation they might be spreading. When he sees a glaring wrong or omission, he contacts the site to get it right.
“Just doing what the Army taught me,” Payne said. “Taking care of my own.”
Bill “No Pay” Fay has lived a meager financial existence his entire life. He started writing/bragging about it in 2012, helping birth Debt.org into existence as the site’s original “Frugal Man.” Prior to that, he spent more than 30 years covering the high finance world of college and professional sports for major publications, including the Associated Press, New York Times and Sports Illustrated. His interest in sports has waned some, but he is as passionate as ever about not reaching for his wallet. Bill can be reached at [email protected].