TAMPA — A Hillsborough County judge's effort to have a former Army Green Beret re-admitted to the University of South Florida won an influential ally Friday: the U.S. secretary of veterans affairs.
In an email to a USF trustee, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald didn't specifically mention the case of former Army Staff Sgt. Clay Allred, who is on probation for firing a gun outside a Tampa gas station last year, a felony offense.
But McDonald emphasized the importance of education in rehabilitating veterans — "even those who have committed felonies."
"If a school like USF eliminates our ability to use education (GI Bill, Voc Rehab) as a way to treat a veteran … I find that a very serious issue that I would like to discuss with the leadership of the school," McDonald wrote.
USF Board of Trustees chairman Harold Mullis said he hadn't seen the email Friday.
Circuit Judge Gregory Holder, who sits on a special court for veterans, has pushed USF in recent weeks to readmit Allred, 30, who needs 17 credits to finish his degree.
This week, Holder made his case to the university's board. He also sent a followup email to trustee Scott Hopes, copying McDonald, a friend from his time at West Point who took the helm of the Department of Veterans Affairs last year.
"The secretary has been following this case very closely," Holder said. "This situation applies to all veterans."
In an email to the Tampa Bay Times, McDonald didn't comment on the particulars of Allred's case, but said Veteran Treatment Courts like Holder's are "an important part of the work we do at VA."
However, the Board of Trustees typically does not get involved in individual admissions cases. Allred has not yet applied for a special review process through which he could appeal USF's decision to dismiss him for the incident last year that got him into legal trouble.
A university spokesman said the school respects its many student veterans and has been recognized nationally for its work to help them transition from military service to college and a new career.
"USF has an established process for admissions," said USF media and public affairs manager Adam Freeman. "Any applicant who has been convicted of a felony, regardless of their background, must complete the terms of court-ordered sentencing before they are considered. The safety of our 48,000 students and approximately 15,000 employees is the highest priority for USF."
Allred, who suffers post-traumatic stress disorder after serving tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, was expelled from USF's Tampa campus over the gun incident. Allred stopped to use the restroom at a Mobil station on Fowler Avenue and was turned away. When the attendant, a Muslim man, told him the gas station was closed, Allred urinated on the floor, told the clerk, "I don't like you people," and pulled an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle from his car. Driving away, he fired a handgun into the air three times.
But Holder says Allred has been eager to get rehabilitation and deserves a second chance. McDonald said in his email that education was key to getting veterans help.
"Our current best approach models use education to get veterans, even those who have committed felonies, back (on) their feet and reintegrated into society," McDonald wrote to Hopes and Holder.
"I can't tell you the number of lives that have been saved, and education is an important part of this."