James “Jim” Rudisill did two stints in the Army that included two tours of duty in Iraq and one in Afghanistan and then became an FBI counter-terrorism agent, helping build cases against white supremacists and ISIS supporters.
Now, he has won a court fight regarding veterans’ benefits that could result in improved government-paid benefits for many of the nation’s longest-serving veterans who want to further their education.
His lawyers estimate that 1.7 million veterans potentially could benefit as a result of the court victory the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit handed him on Thursday.
Rudisill, who lives near Richmond, Virginia, had sued the government, arguing that the federal Department of Veterans Affairs shortchanged him on the tuition benefits provided under two versions of the GI Bill.
On Thursday, by a 2-1 vote, a panel of federal appeals judges agreed that he was.
“He’s very excited and just kind of thrilled,” his attorney Tim McHugh said Friday. “Obviously excited for himself but even more so for everyone else.”
Rudisill’s experiences in combat and later in seeing fellow vets turn to drugs or lose hope for the future led him to want to become an Army chaplain so he could counsel service members coping with stress and depression.
He planned to use his GI Bill benefits to attend graduate divinity school at Yale University.
But after he got accepted into the prestigious program, the federal government told him in 2015 it was calculating the amount of educational benefits he was entitled to get in a way the courts later ruled cheated him out of 12 months of schooling.
Like many older veterans, Rudisill had earned benefits under two versions of the well-known GI Bill: the Montgomery GI Bill and the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
The Montgomery GI Bill provides up to 36 months of stipends toward college tuition for qualifying service members who pay $1,200 into the system.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill also provides 36 months of more generous benefits covering tuition, housing and books. The benefits are given automatically to those who qualify.
Veterans who qualify can tap tuition benefits under both laws.
But the VA said that because Rudisill already used part of his Montgomery benefits before switching to the more generous Post-9/11 benefits, he was entitled only to tuition for the number of months left under his Montgomery GI Bill benefits.
That amounted to only 10 more months of schooling — not the 22 months he was counting on. Without that, he couldn’t afford to go to Yale.
Rudisill sued the Department of Veterans Affairs, arguing it wasn’t fair to limit him to 36 months of schooling, rather than the 48 months he said he had earned.
The just-announced appeals court ruling affirmed an earlier decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims in favor of Rudisill.
“It’s an across-the-board win from our perspective,” says McHugh, who with attorney David J. DePippo has represented Rudisill pro bono in challenging the VA’s decision. “We encourage the VA to broadly and promptly implement this.”
A VA spokesman declined to comment in detail but, in an email, wrote: “VA is assessing this decision at this time. We are committed to providing veterans the benefits they have earned and deserve.”
Following the appellate ruling could mean the VA would have to pay benefits collectively worth potentially billions of dollars to long-serving veterans toward college or graduate school.
Rudisill’s two periods of military service included many harrowing moments. As a platoon leader in Afghanistan, he turned back a Taliban assault and directed medical evacuations under fire, saving other soldiers’ lives.
He achieved the rank of captain and received honors including the Bronze Star.
He told the Sun-Times last year that leading soldiers in combat “really makes one appreciate how delicate life is, how precious it is.”
The case has been watched by veterans and educational organizations around the country. The nonprofit organizations National Veterans Legal Services Program and Veterans Education Success filed briefs in support of Rudisill.
As the case dragged on, time ran out for Rudisill to realize his dream of returning to the Army as a chaplain. The age cutoff to do so is 38, and he’s now in his 40s, having been engaged in the court fight for over five years.
But, though he’s still working full-time for the FBI, he has been pursuing a master’s degree in pastoral ministry from Nashotah House Theological Seminary in Wisconsin and plans to minister to first-responders and other vets.