By now, many US veterans have completed their spring semesters. They are either moving on to their first post-military jobs, traveling overseas for language study, getting prepped for prestigious internships, or waiting out the storm we call the post-financial crisis job market in America. Either way, this month marks the completion of the first academic year of existence for the Post 9/11 (Chapter 33) GI Bill. The new GI Bill, now open to all honorably discharged veterans (regardless if they ‘invested’ the $1200 upon the beginning of their service), has many advantages over the Chapter 30 Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB), to include BAH payments while in school. Though this all came at a frustrating cost- as payments were months late, differing in amounts, and getting a hold of a VA educational counselor seemed impossible at times.
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), a non-profit veteran’s advocacy group has been a strong champion of veteran’s health and education issues in its three years of existence. This year, they meet with numerous Congressmen on the Hill to discuss issues affecting veterans, including the struggle to find civilian jobs and the new GI Bill. Army veteran and Columbia undergraduate student Marco Reininger delivered a testimony to the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on 21 April 2010, outlining his suggested improvements to GI Bill.
The following is an outline of just some of the issues veterans faced this year with the VA’s new Post 9/11 GI Bill.
Applying for the new GI Bill. I have to say I was quite shocked upon leaving active duty last spring, when I discovered that I had to ‘apply’ for the GI Bill. I served nearly seven years and was honorably discharged – wasn’t I going to receive the GI Bill automatically? Unfortunately the process was not that simple. VONAPP (Veterans On Line Application) is a site that allows veterans to apply for medical compensation and education benefits online, though has no tracking mechanism to follow the progress of our application. To complicate matters worse, we most likely applied for our benefits in one state, but moved to a different state once school started. I know I experienced some lag time with the transfer of my file (which was done via USPS) when I moved from Georgia to New York to attend graduate school last fall.
School certification process. Up until mid-August last summer, no one- veterans, school financial counselors or VA employees- knew what the new tuition rates would be, how the payments would be dispersed, etc. It was an especially nerve-racking time for veterans who were giving up their military life to transition to being a college student, either for the first time or returning to school after their service. We didn’t know whether we needed to take out Federal loans or whether the GI Bill would cover all our costs. To further complicate matters, the VA had not instituted any formal training for university administrators. Frequently, when calling our university financial aid office, we were directed to the extremely vague VA website. The site makes each process seem very simplistic and streamline, though as any veteran or spouse can tell you, the VA processes are more times than not, anything but simple.
My university waited until after the semester drop period to certify our course load, in order to not have to issue amendments in the event that our schedule changed. This meant that the VA was receiving our paperwork nearly one month after the semester began. Again, with no online tracking system, students nor the university were able to see the progress on the paperwork.
Issuing of Emergency Assistance. Last fall, when VA discovered they were not able to handle the load of student certifications, they began issuing $3000 emergency checks as a hold over until the paperwork was fully processed. This was essentially a band-aid to a greater processing problem. Vets were happy to stand in line at their local VA post or apply online for a mailed check. Many months later though, vets discovered their BAH payments were reduced by $750/month. This was the VA’s method of choice for collecting the $3000 back. Anyone can imagine the stress an abrupt deduction in pay can cause for a student living on a fixed budget. Recently, I received letters from the VA Debt Management Center stating that if I don’t send a check for $1500 to the VA, I will be reported to a collection agency. (Ironically enough, my summer internship is an unpaid job at the Pentagon- I’m once again serving, this time for no pay, and the VA is hassling me in the process! C’est la vie.)
Bottom Line. The GI Bill is a form of compensation for our service- not a scholarship. There seems to be a misconception with some of our civilian counterparts that we are ‘going to school for free.’ I feel that it is almost universally understood that the men and women of the United States military are severely underpaid for what they are asked to do for their country. They do what many can’t or won’t. The GI Bill is a small payback to the brave men and women for all their sacrifices. When the systems in place cause so much frustration in order to utilize these resources, it sends the signal that the government is not willing to take the extra time to properly recognize our veterans.
In addition, the universities need to expand their knowledge on veteran’s issues. They need to understand that although many do not have the wounds of war physically apparent, they will carry pieces with them for the rest of their lives. Around one in three hundred people in the US today have served. Yet, you will find a much greater proportion in college today. That goes to show the determination and high goals veterans have for themselves.
Luckily, there are those who support the vets tirelessly. In early June, the Chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) introduced the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Improvements Act. Although it does not fully address the personnel and customer service improvements needed within the Veterans Administration, it does aim to open up benefits to guard/reserve and allow active duty service members to receive the book stipend, which is not covered by tuition assistance.
Finally, the veterans need to stay informed. Read the VA website as often as possible. Reach out to fellow student veterans. Contact your representative or senator to push for enhanced legislation. Complacency will not help improve the system for our friends, children, or grandchildren. We fought together in battle; there is no reason for us not to continue to band together towards these benefits.