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Technicality in tuition program cuts off help for Iraq war widow

Mon., Aug. 31, 2009, midnight

“She’s my keeper now,” Natalie Craig says of Honey, her corgi-dachshund,  as she holds the flag box honoring her late husband, Sgt. James Craig, who was killed in Iraq in January 2008. (J. BART RAYNIAK / The Spokesman-Review)
“She’s my keeper now,” Natalie Craig says of Honey, her corgi-dachshund, as she holds the flag box honoring her late husband, Sgt. James Craig, who was killed in Iraq in January 2008. (J. BART RAYNIAK / The Spokesman-Review)

Army Sgt. James E. Craig was born in Spokane, married in Spokane and after being killed during his third tour in Iraq, he was buried in Spokane.

Although few would argue that he is not a son of Washington state, Craig’s widow has had to insist that it is so in order to continue receiving a state college tuition waiver intended for the families of dead or disabled veterans.

“Where you choose to be buried is your home,” says Natalie Craig, who wonders whether other war widows have had trouble proving their husbands’ legal residency “and I’m just the only one who’s not going to roll over.”

However, she is not the first to complain, according to state Sen. Mike Hewitt, author of the legislation that provides tuition waivers to eligible children and spouses of veterans or active duty personnel who are disabled, deceased, made prisoner of war or declared missing in action.

The Walla Walla Republican said that since the law was unanimously approved and signed by the governor in 2007, he has had to amend it twice to clarify its intent for “nitpicking” deputy attorneys general representing colleges and universities.

“I had one university that was not going to comply until I said I would turn this over to the media,” Hewitt said.

When the bill passed it was estimated that about 330 waivers for tuition and fees would be issued to veterans’ dependents each year. So far, fewer than 100 have been issued, according to Hewitt’s office.

In March, Craig was told she would no longer receive a tuition waiver at Spokane Community College, where she is completing her prerequisites for nursing school.

Under the law, both veteran and dependent must be a Washington “domiciliary,” but at the time of his death Sgt. Craig had a driver’s license from Colorado. Craig served in the 4th Infantry Division, which is based in Fort Carson, Colo.

Natalie Craig wrote the offices of the governor, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and 5th District Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, but until last week, her pleas had gone unanswered.

Contacted by The Spokesman-Review, Community Colleges of Spokane Chancellor Gary Livingston said it was likely Craig’s tuition waiver would be restored if she could provide a document proving her husband’s connection to Washington state.

“Everyone wants to help her,” Livingston said, “if somehow she can help us find a way that (her husband) established Washington as a domiciliary.”

Otherwise, the college would be illegally “gifting” public money, he said.

Craig will find out today whether her Spokane County marriage license will satisfy the college’s concerns.

Livingston said that the University of Washington and Washington State University also have dealt with complications of the new law.

The Community Colleges of Spokane waives about $1 million a year in tuition and fees for many different reasons, including the military waiver.

James Craig was born at Sacred Heart Medical Center on Dec. 27, 1981, to Joel and Phyllis Craig. He later moved with his family to the Cusick, Wash., area where he attended high school until his father moved the family temporarily to North Carolina while he attended a nearby college to become a pastor.

As a result, James Craig graduated in 2000 from Academic Magnet School near Hollywood, N.C., which the Army listed as his home of record when he enlisted in 2001. Before entering boot camp, the recruit helped move his family back to Spokane, his wife said.

Later, James and Natalie met at Fourth Memorial Church and maintained their relationship via the Internet while he was away. They were married at Gretna Green Wedding Chapel in Spokane on July 29, 2007.

For a short while, Natalie moved to Fort Carson to be with her husband before he deployed to Iraq for a third tour on Dec. 3, 2007.

On Jan. 28, 2008, one day short of the couple’s six-month anniversary, Craig was killed along with four other 4th Infantry Division soldiers when a large bomb buried in the roadway exploded beneath their vehicle in Mosul, Iraq.

A year later, Natalie Craig, a nurse’s assistant, enrolled in SCC with the intention of applying to nursing school at Washington State University-Spokane. She receives financial help from the GI Bill and had been receiving the tuition waiver, worth almost $1,000 a quarter, until her adviser informed her she had been receiving the waiver in error.

“I felt I had both my feet on the ground and it was just pulled out from under me,” she said. “Because he had a Colorado state driver’s license, I cannot receive this benefit.”

The problem, Hewitt said, is that colleges and universities were interpreting the law differently than the Legislature intended.

“If we run into this problem again, we may have to go back and tweak it again,” Hewitt said. “I’m doing everything possible to make sure these families are taken care of.”

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