Share story

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (AP) — When she graduates from the University of Mary Washington with a degree in psychology this month, Carolyn Huffstickler, 68, will have benefited from a free college education.

The Stafford County resident is grateful, but she wouldn’t call herself lucky.

“People say I’m so lucky to have gotten a free education,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes. “It was not free. You have no idea of the price I’ve paid.”

Huffstickler paid for her university degree with benefits she received through the Virginia Military Survivors and Dependents Education Program and the federal Department of Veterans Affairs.

She also receives a monthly stipend of $1,257 from the VA — compensation benefits as the surviving spouse of a veteran who died from exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

Huffstickler’s husband, Dennis, died on Oct. 12, 2004, two weeks before his 56th birthday, of ischemic heart disease, which is characterized by a reduced supply of blood to the heart, leading to chest pain.

But his widow didn’t know until 2013 that his disease was caused by Agent Orange exposure and that she was eligible for survivor benefits.

Dennis suffered his first heart attack at age 33. He underwent his first open-heart surgery in 2000 and his second in 2004.

“He didn’t survive the second surgery,” Huffstickler said.

Dennis was drafted into the Army in 1969 and spent two years in Vietnam. When his term of service was over, he left the military and worked for the federal government.

When he died at a young age, people kept telling Huffstickler she should call the VA.

“I did, but I didn’t know what questions to ask,” she said. “They asked if he was injured, and I said, ‘No.’ Nothing came of it.”

Carolyn and Dennis met at Robert E. Lee High School in Springfield. They married right after she graduated in 1968 and three months later, Dennis was drafted.

“I didn’t know him well enough to know that his health was different after he got back,” she said.

After Dennis died, Huffstickler went on with her life as best she could. She had four children and her youngest son was still at home. She also had a business to run — a small, in-home day care.

“I only had five kids at a time,” she said, referring to her day care. “I’d rock them to sleep and feed them organic food. It was like going to your grandmother’s house.”

But a decade after her husband’s death, she couldn’t shake lingering questions about what caused it. All four of Dennis’s younger brothers are healthy. Both his parents lived into their 80s and all four of his grandparents lived into their 90s and none of them showed any signs of heart disease.

In 2013, she had some friends over for dinner and spoke some of her thoughts aloud.

“I said, ‘It’s so odd that Denny would have died of heart disease when no one else in his family has ever had it,'” she remembered. “My friend said, ‘You need to go to the Agent Orange site right now.’ “

Agent Orange was a tactical herbicide used by the U.S. military in Vietnam between 1962 and 1975. The military sprayed millions of gallons of the chemical on the Vietnamese jungle in an attempt to deprive enemy forces of food and vegetation.

In Vietnam, Dennis Huffstickler led a five-man team through the jungle. Carolyn Huffstickler said she knows he was exposed to Agent Orange, but she never considered heart disease to have been one of the diseases caused by the herbicide.

“I would have assumed skin cancer, never heart disease,” she said.

But the Virginia Department of Veterans Affairs’ Agent Orange site lists ischemic heart disease as one of the conditions associated with exposure to the chemical — along with Type 2 diabetes, which Dennis Huffstickler also developed after returning from the war.

Armed with this information and her husband’s death certificate, Huffstickler visited the veteran’s affairs office at Marine Corps Base Quantico. There, she was told that in Dennis’ case, there was no doubt that his death was caused by Agent Orange.

“If you had boots on the ground during those few years (Jan. 9, 1962, and May 7, 1975), it’s just assumed,” Huffstickler was told.

She is eligible for a monthly stipend for the rest of her life. She said Dennis would have been eligible for benefits while he was alive to cover some or all of the expenses related to his heart disease and diabetes. According to her calculations, she missed out on close to $200,000 in benefits for herself and for her minor child by not applying shortly after Dennis’s death in 2004.

Huffstickler learned about her education benefits by chance. While she was waiting in the veteran’s affairs office at Quantico, she flipped through a book about survivor benefits and saw something about VMSDEP. She asked her case manager whether she would be eligible for the program.

“She said, ‘Oh, you are,’ ” Huffstickler remembered. “She wasn’t going to tell me. Even when you find out you have benefits, they don’t tell you what else you are eligible for. I only found out in 2016 that I also have commissary privileges, so I have a military ID now.”

Huffstickler knew she wanted to take advantage of the education benefits. She’d attended nursing school for one year after high school but dropped out because she wanted to be a full-time wife and mother. And then when Dennis’s health began to deteriorate, they needed her income from the day care to help pay his mounting medical bills.

But she said she always regretted leaving school and now, she had time for herself. With her monthly stipend and education benefits, she could go to school full-time.

She retired from her day care in 2014 and enrolled in Germanna Community College. In January of 2016, she transferred to UMW, choosing psychology as her major, despite the transfer office worker’s warning that it was “a tough major.”

“My favorite classes were cognitive psychology and sensation and perception,” Huffstickler said. “They’re both really about how the brain works. They’re both really interesting. I think I could study psychology forever.”

After she graduates this month, she plans to pursue a master’s degree in education with the goal of teaching English as a second language. She figures she could work for 15 years, at least, and then maybe continue part-time.

“My grandmother lived to be 98,” she said. “I don’t want to sit around watching TV for the next 30 years.”

Huffstickler is planning to host a celebratory dinner for family and friends who’ve helped her get through college as an older person.

“I didn’t do this by myself,” she said. “My daughter and daughters-in-law edited my papers. My grandson Mason has been my tech adviser since he was 8 years old.”

But always mixed with the success is the painful reminder of what she and her family lost when Dennis died. The one-time quarterback for his high school football team, he was a larger-than-life figure, a storyteller and renowned expert on hunting and fishing. His son, Jackie, thought he was Superman.

Fourteen years later, thinking about his death still brings his widow to tears.

“My youngest son was only 14 years old when his father died,” she said. “He’ll never get over that.”

Huffstickler said she hopes her experience will inspire others to seek out benefits they might be eligible for or return to school as adults.

“I know there are other people out there in the same situation and I don’t want to miss out on the opportunity to let people know,” she said.