Hayleigh Perez, 26, hoped to use her G.I. Bill to attend the UNC’s Pembroke campus near Fort Bragg, but the young veteran -- who served a 14-month tour in Iraq -- was told she did not qualify as a state resident because she had been gone for about three years.
Perez enlisted in 2005, and was stationed in Fort Bragg before shipping out to Camp Bucca in Iraq. That's where she met her husband and fellow soldier, Jose Perez-Rodriguez. The pair married and, when their tours ended in 2006, bought their home in Raeford, N.C. They lived there until 2009, when Jose Perez-Rodriguez was assigned to a base in Texas. But they continued paying the mortgage and taxes on the North Carolina property while she accompanied him on his deployment for six months, and Perez has been in North Carolina for the past two years, she said.
“I got frustrated. When I tried to inquire, they kept putting up roadblocks,” Perez told FoxNews.com. “It’s just disgraceful that life in Iraq, where you could die, is easier than trying to go to school here.”
Perez was honorably discharged in September 2009, and, after giving birth to daughter Calleigh, and sought to build a post-military career. When her husband won a transfer back to Fort Bragg to rejoin his family, Perez started applying to colleges in the area in hopes of pursuing a master's degree as a physician's assistant. She told FoxNews.com she was accepted to both UNC’s Fayetteville and Pembroke branches and chose Pembroke. But Perez was shocked when UNC-Pembroke officials told her she was not considered an in-state resident, even though the Fayetteville branch said she was. The G.I. Bill Perez hoped to use for school does not cover out-of-state tuition.
"I just figured I could appeal the decision," Perez said. "I thought it would be easy.”
But Perez said the appeal process consisted of appearing before a 15-member panel at the school's vice chancellor’s office, where her request was denied. She said she later learned that the denial was based on the fact that she had not paid income tax in North Carolina in the years in which she was in Iraq and Texas.
“The process was demeaning. They [Pembroke] treated me so poorly I felt like I was a criminal on trial,” she said. “They told me I couldn’t reapply.”
Sgt. Jason Thigpen, founder and president of the Student Veterans Advocacy Group, which is helping Perez make an appeal to the school, said nearly 250,000 other student veterans nationwide have been forced to pay out-of-pocket while using their G.I. Bill due to "adverse and short-sighted changes our federal government made.”
Adding insult to injury, says Thigpen, is the fact the UNC is currently considering granting in-state tuition benefits to illegal immigrants at all 16 of its branches, including Pembroke.
“In North Carolina alone there are more than 5,000 student veterans facing such hardship, while the state [may grant] in-state residency for tuition purposes to illegal immigrants," he said. "That's not the deal we signed up for when joining the military, and surely isn't what was intended in the 1940s when [the G.I. Bill program] began,” he added.
Officials from the university did not immediately return a request for comment on Tuesday as they were scheduled to meet with Perez.
Perez, who started an Internet petition that has garnered support from across the country with nearly 120,000 signatures in just five days, and the Students Veterans Advocacy group intend to sue both the school and the federal government if the school's decision is not reversed.
“It’s so much larger. This isn’t just about me. It’s for every veteran hitting these roadblocks,” Perez said.
No matter what happens, Perez said she won't be attending UNC-Pembroke.
"I’m now attending a private college," she said, declining to name the school. "I don’t want to be associated with an institution that treats veterans this way.”