Veterans program abruptly shuts down in Garland

The VA confirmed to WFAA Thursday afternoon that the Texas Veterans Commission Education Program has withdrawn approval of the Retail Ready Career Center in Garland to train G.I. Bill beneficiaries.
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The Department of Veterans Affairs has abruptly revoked a Garland vocational training school's ability to enroll veterans through the G.I. Bill, halting classes and sending as many as 300 students home with less than half of their training program completed.

The VA confirmed to WFAA Thursday afternoon that the Texas Veterans Commission Education Program has withdrawn approval of the Retail Ready Career Center in Garland to train G.I. Bill beneficiaries. As a result, those students "will no longer receive G.I. Bill benefits at the school, and any future certification of G.I. Bill students is prohibited."

Students tell WFAA that federal investigators first visited the campus on West Kingsley Road a week ago. They returned Wednesday of this week and ordered the school shut down. The majority of the students, in a 6-week training program to become HVAC technicians, are military veterans who either sought out the program or, in some cases, were recruited by Retail Ready Career Center to join their classes. Students say the 6-week program is paid for with 11-weeks of their G.I. Bill benefits, approximately $20,000.

"They didn't give us any explanation," said Army veteran and RRCC student Justin Arreola. "They just told us to get our things and get out. It was right in the middle of the class. Head instructor walks in, tells us sorry guys the school is shutting down, you all have to leave the building immediately."

WFAA reached the Marine veteran just before he boarded a plane home to Yuma, Arizona. Students were drawn to the program in Garland from across the country, provided housing in extended stay hotels throughout the DFW area, and bused to and from the school campus. Arreola says that when the V.A. ordered a stop to the G.I. Bill funding, the school offered many of the veterans airline tickets home.

"We were promised a lot of stuff. And basically told us to leave with no answers, no explanations whatsoever," said Army veteran Peter Szczepaniak who left Garland Thursday to drive home to his wife and family in San Antonio. He, along with the current students in his class, began their courses on Sept. 11 and were scheduled to receive their full certifications by Oct. 21.

"We just want answers from the owner and I don't think it's right. And that's all I have to say about that," Szczepaniak said.

Calls to the company were not returned. An attorney only issued a written statement:

"The Department of Veterans Affairs is conducting an administrative review that has temporarily suspended classes. We hope to resolve this soon. Retail Ready Career Center is attempting to address any issues that may have arisen from this unfortunate situation."

Students say they have been told the investigation has to do with whether the G.I. Bill money was being properly collected and properly spent, something the U.S. Attorneys Office would neither confirm nor deny.

Other students contacted by WFAA complained the VA shut down the program with little or no concern for the veterans involved. They ask why the VA didn't allow the students to just finish the final 4-weeks of their training that their veterans benefits had paid for.

In the meantime, as many as 300 students, mostly veterans from across the country, are headed home with another unexpected battle to fight.

"Yesterday I saw grown men that had seen combat, cry on the bus because of what happened," Justin Arreola said. "A lot of them had left jobs, a lot of them quit well-paying jobs to come here to get educated to be able to provide for their families better. And they broke down not knowing what they were going to do at that point."

A VA spokesperson says it is assessing the impact of these actions on GI Bill students attending the school and will be updating the students soon on their options going forward.