An Army cadet who left West Point just months shy of his graduation to make a high-profile protest of religious proselytizing at the school now faces Pentagon demands that he repay the cost of his education — either through active-duty service or by paying as much as $250,000.
The notification this week that he would be hit up for the fees blindsided Blake Page, 24, who says that top leadership at West Point assured him that "recoupment" of costs for his taxpayer-funded education would be waived when he left the school in December.
The Army’s move to deny the waiver — rejecting recommendations of the three-star general who runs West Point — was within its authority, but unusual enough to raise eyebrows.
"As a general matter, the secretary of the Army usually follows recommendations that come up through the chain of command," Philip Cave, a retired Navy judge advocate who practices military law in Alexandria, Va.
Page’s supporters see demand for recoupment as punishment for a scathing commentary he wrote calling attention to what he considers illegal Christian proselytizing at West Point and discrimination against non-religious cadets. The commentary was published in The Huffington Post as he was leaving.
"Countless officers here and throughout the military are guilty of blatantly violating the oaths they swore to defend the Constitution," Page wrote in a Dec. 3 commentary entitled "Why I don’t want to be a West Point Graduate."
Original report by NBC News: West Point cadet quits, cites 'criminal behavior' of officers
He said the academy’s leaders were guilty of "unconstitutional proselytism, discrimination against the non-religious and establishing formal policies to reward, encourage and even at times require sectarian religious participation."
The way recoupment works is that if a student attends at least two years at the taxpayers’ expense, and then does not finish for reasons they could control — especially misconduct or poor performance — they are required to repay the government, said Cave. If things out of their control cause their departure, including many medical conditions, recoupment can be waived.
Page had been diagnosed with clinical depression during his time there and was told that he was not qualified to be a commissioned officer, according to military documents. Nonetheless, he said, he was in good academic standing and on track to graduate in May.
But the senior classman, a self-described atheist, decided to forego his diploma.
"I could have stayed and graduated," said Page, who established a Secular Students Association at West Point. "By resigning I was able to make a very loud and bold statement. I believe it had some positive impact on the non-religious cadets."
Page's supporters believe he’s being punished — apparently not by West Point, but the Pentagon — for his unflattering portrayal of academy.
"This may be the clearest example I’ve ever seen of reprisal and retribution," said Mikey Weinstein, the president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit watchdog group that battles evangelism infused in military business. "It sends an extremely dangerous message to anyone who wants to stand for their constitutional rights."
Weinstein, who recently brought Page on as his assistant at the nonprofit, says that in December he and Page separately received assurances from West Point leadership that the former cadet would not be called into active duty or handed a huge bill for his early departure.
In a memorandum dated Dec. 12, the superintendent of West Point, Lt. Gen. David Huntoon, did recommend to Army headquarters that Page be honorably discharged and that recoupment — in the form of money or service as an enlisted soldier — be waived.
The response, signed by Thomas R. Lamont, assistant Army secretary, approves Page for an honorable discharge, but disapproves the waivers. In the Jan. 28 memorandum, he orders the West Point superintendent "to conduct a recoupment investigation."
"They have to provide a line by line breakdown of the costs that were incurred from (Page) being there," said Maj. Scott R. Johnson, who is a liaison with West Point at the Department of the Army.
The amount varies from one case to another. But the estimated cost of attending four years at West Point is estimated at $200,000-$250,000. The military could also order Page back to active duty.
Asked why Huntoon’s recommendations on Page’s behalf were rejected, Johnson said:
"We are an impartial third party. We review each individual packet … There’s merit to an organization such as the academy and a three-star general making a recommendation. But if it were always in their favor, there would be no reason for us to review the packets."
Once the Pentagon demands recoupment, there’s not much recourse for the soldier, according to Cave, the Virginia attorney.
"To the extent that there might be remedy, there’s not effective remedy," he said.
Weinstein is threatening legal action.
"My message for the Army is they better be ready to face a whistleblower lawsuit," he said. "If they are not going to fairly state why they are doing this, they can tell it to the 12 members of a federal jury."
Meantime Page, who now lives in Minnesota, is finishing up a certification program to work as a personal trainer. He's also written a book about his experiences, which he hopes will generate some revenue.
Asked what will he do if the military sends him a bill for $200,000, he responds: "File for bankruptcy, I guess."