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GI Bill: Veterans Bailed Out or Thrown Anchor?Phil Northcutt Salem-News.com
Veterans are waiting long periods for college funding that has been promised to them, too long in some cases.
(SANTA ROSA, Calif.) - Veterans from all over the country will be hitting the road on October 2, 2009, to collect "emergency payments" of up to $3,000 from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), making up for delays in the new Chapter 33 Post 9/11 GI Bill.
While the new GI BIll is a great improvement over previous educational benefits, many veterans have yet to see any benefit, or money, at all. Many are taking out loans and incurring additional debt due to the delay.
According to the VA website, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki announced the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has authorized checks for up to $3,000 to be given to students who have applied for educational benefits and who have not yet received their government payment.
But, veterans will have to physically travel to VA Regional Offices with their school ID and a class schedule in order to claim these funds which should have been distributed at the beginning of the semester, in August.
A $1,000 book stipend is designed to help veterans offset the cost of books. Many veterans have not received their book money and have had to buy them out of pocket, or go without books. Originally, the VA was requiring vets to bring an entitlement letter from the VA, but are now only requiring ID and a schedule. "Its hard to take a class without the book," says one veteran. "These books can easily cost $140 or more. That can add up quickly if you have 4 or 5 classes."
Veterans attending Santa Rosa Junior College, in California, will have to travel about 70 miles, or about an hour and a half, to get their money. That's a long way for a veteran struggling with the unforeseen expenses of tuition, books, housing and other costs associated with going to college.
The VA's website says the VA is working with veterans organizations to provide transportation. At SRJC, the school's Office of Veterans Affairs has no information on transportation to Oakland on October 2nd. A press release from the VA hangs on the wall.
Craig Rowland, the school's Veteran Service Officer, says the VA should have paid most students by the 1st of October and that the emergency money will be for those who don't get paid on the 1st. This isn't stated on the VA's website. According to Rowland, the VA has hired a lot of new processors and has people working overtime to resolve the situation as quickly as possible.
"The VA is working very, very diligently to resolve this and get people paid by the 1st", says Rowland. "The last thing the VA wants to do is to have to pay everybody from the Regional Offices because then accounting would have to adjust the benefits for all those veterans, creating additional work."
Those benefits would have to be adjusted by sending the information to the VA's accounting office in Oklahoma, further complicating the process.
Over 290,000 veterans have applied for the new GI Bill benefits. Of those, it seems that a mere 27,500 have received a partial or full payment already.
The VA says it has processed all but about 72,000 claims and that another 25,000 are expected to get emergency payments on October 2. This leaves a relatively large number of veterans uncovered and unmentioned by the VA, if any of these numbers are correct. According to the VA's website they are processing several thousand every few days and post these numbers for all to see.
"Some of the backlog is caused by veterans using the old Montgomery GI Bill. Those students will receive an additional 12 months of benefits, which impacts the case load significantly," says Rowland.
Just how many veterans are having to retreat from college? No one knows for sure. Surely, some will not be able to weather the delay while bills mount up, and debt rises. Some veterans talk of dropping out, saying they might have waited a semester, to let the VA sort out any glitches in the system before committing financially to college without the ability to pay for it.
Many veterans enrolled in school were counting on the financial commitment of the VA. When the VA failed to pay on time, it put many veterans in a compromising financial situation.
Andrew White, an Air Force Staff Sergeant, was medically discharged in 2002 and is now attending Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, New York, studying business administration.
White says, "It was quick and simple registering for classes and the VA specialist at the college did everything for me. I did have to front the $600 for the books and will lose money since next semester will put me over the annual allowance." White works full time while attending school.
"I am getting told I probably won't get the money until December."
John Darst, 30, is a 6-year Navy veteran. "Doc" Darst is attending Cleveland State University on the new Post 9/11 GI BIll. He is studying to be a physician's assistant after working as a Corpsman in the Navy and Marines. The Buffalo processing center that handles his benefits told him it would take 3 to 4 weeks to get his check. It took 8 weeks. The Veterans Commission, a private non-profit in Cleveland, paid Darst's rent for one month and gave him money for food.
"The last month has been hell!" Darst explains, "I quit working to put my full attention into school because I can live off my book stipend and disability. No money comes in and I am struggling for groceries and rent."
Turning to veterans groups for help has been a lifeline that has kept many vets in school.
Organizations like Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund and Rebuild Hope have also assisted veterans with rent and food during the delay. Darst says CSU's veterans program (SERV) has also supported his educational efforts.
An article on the Internet stated that the Veterans of Foreign Wars was providing assistance to student veterans in need, but Troy Danderson, an Associate Director for the VFW says, "Unfortunately not."
While some private non-profits are gaining acclaim, Veterans Affairs is not doing so well.
"Its embarrassing," Says one veteran, a student at Santa Rosa Junior College. "It's like general knowledge now. 'The vets at school aren't getting paid.' It reflects poorly on our military and how the country treats us. I know the American people care. They don't want their vets treated like this. We are lucky to have the new GI Bill, but if we rely on it and it doesn't work, some of us are in big trouble. If I don't get paid, I will have to choose between paying rent and going to school? The VA really needs to fix this!"
"Doc" Darst received his book stipend yesterday, after scraping up enough money to buy books out of pocket earlier in the semester.
"I have to say, I am extremely grateful for the new Post 9/11 GI Bill. I couldn't afford to go to CSU before and now I can."
A Facebook message from Derek Blumke of Student Veterans of America states the VA, citing the distances many vets will have to travel, will offer an internet application process as well, which is slated to be available on October 2nd, also. This should be available on the VA's GI Bill website. The VA's Facebook page offers additional information. Veterans who need transportation to the nearest VA Regional Office can contact their local VA medical center and ask for the Volunteer Transportation Coordinator on a first-come, first-served basis.
Salem-News.com's Dr. Phil Leveque wrote about the original GI Bill and the new version, visit: G.I. Bill 1944: The Best U.S. Investment Ever for The Greatest Generation - Dr. Phil Leveque Salem-News.com
Phil Northcutt is combat veteran of the Iraq war and a former infantry Sergeant in the United States Marine Corps. He is an agriculture student at Santa Rosa Junior College, and works as a veterans advocate connecting veterans in need to the resources and non-profits that assist them. He has experience as a music promoter, television and mobile media producer with a background in printing. Phil is an outspoken advocate of medical cannabis for veterans with issues of Post Traumatic Stress.
We at Salem-News.com are extremely happy to add Phil to our staff of writers, many of whom are combat veterans, and allow a place for his strong voice that has already made a difference for many. Phil is our first writer who is a combat veteran of the Iraq War. You can send Phil Northcutt an email at this address: firstname.lastname@example.org
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