GI Bill beginning to look like an IOU to many vets

In the military, I learned to expect screw-ups, especially when it came to money. So maybe the Department of Veterans Affairs is just trying to ease my transition to civilian life by doing things the military way in its handling of Post 9/11 GI Bill education benefits.

Student veterans began applying for education benefits in May, and we were supposed to have our tuition paid and receive our housing and book stipends in August. That didn’t happen.

Instead, more than two months into the school year, most of us have received nothing, although the VA is graciously offering to advance us emergency checks of up to $3,000 to ease the economic burden of not yet receiving the money we were promised.

Along with health care, job experience and a steady paycheck, the GI Bill was one of my primary reasons for joining the Army in 2004.

I went into the military — and spent a year in Kirkuk province in northern Iraq — with the express intention of pursuing graduate studies when my contract was up.

Truth be told, I wouldn’t be writing this column right now, as a student at the University of California, Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, were it not for the GI Bill. Or, at least, for the promise of the GI Bill.

At this rate, it will take longer for the VA to get me my education benefits than it took for the Army to turn me into a soldier.

Why can’t student vets get the money we were promised back when the Post 9/11 GI Bill was signed in July 2008?

According to Paul Sherbo, a VA spokesman, the department has been overwhelmed with new applications and the backlog has caused massive delays.

By the VA’s own count, more than a quarter of a million education claims have been filed by eligible veterans since May 1, and about 70 percent of those have been processed.

While this might sound great, let’s not confuse processing with disbursement of funds.

As of the first week in October, despite having about 900 employees working overtime to process claims, the VA had distributed only 27,000 payments for tuition or for living and book stipends.

In other words, nearly 200,000 veterans hadn’t received a dollar.

No one seems to be talking about the interest that’s been accruing on the education loans some veterans were forced to take out while waiting for their GI Bill money. I doubt the VA will pay it.

I myself have taken out almost $16,000 in education loans. Most universities require a student to pay tuition and fees up front, and turning in an IOU from Uncle Sam doesn’t quite do the trick.

When I received my first tuition bill in August and realized the VA had not yet paid for my tuition and fees (nor my book and living stipends), I frantically called the financial aid office trying to figure out what to do.

After a handful of calls, a financial aid representative reassured me that the loans I qualified for (and would now have to take out) would cover enough of the tuition so that I wouldn’t be kicked out of school or be charged a late-payment fee.

UC Berkeley’s VA representative, Michael Cooper, couldn’t provide me with any further guidance. Once he submitted my paperwork to the VA, he said, it was out of his control, and he hasn’t received so much as an automated e-mail from them since.

At UC San Diego, Vonda Garcia, the associate director of financial aid, said her office hasn’t heard anything from the VA about the status of their students’ GI Bill money or details about the emergency checks. In the meantime, her counselors are discouraging veterans from applying for the emergency payments and are going out of their way to find money for them through the university.

“We don’t want to risk the VA messing up and these vets end up having to owe any more money,” Garcia said.

To add insult to injury, some veterans who did receive emergency checks apparently are having trouble getting them cashed. The VA Web site doesn’t say this explicitly, but notes: “In many cases these checks are handwritten and could pose concerns of fraud from banks.”

There’s now a special telephone number for banks to call so they can verify the check’s authenticity and the veteran’s identity. Perhaps tellers will have better luck than I did in penetrating the automated phone system.

As soon as my call went through, a digitalized male voice informed me that the VA was experiencing a high volume of calls. Then the phone disconnected.

When Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) said veterans “who have been serving since 9/11 should have the same opportunity for a first-class educational future as those who served during World War II,” I believed him.

So did hundreds of thousands of my fellow student veterans.

While sweltering under the weight of 70 pounds of body armor in Iraq, grateful to make it through the day in one piece, the prospect of returning to school and planning for the future was something to keep me focused. I even kept several GRE study guides in my room, though I rarely had time to open them.

But those days are behind me. Or so I thought.

Now, as my fellow student veterans and I are moving on with our lives, we are forced to once again resort to military tactics — we’ll suck it up and drive on.

Linsay Rousseau Burnett served with the U.S. Army’s 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, and is now a student at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.

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