- October 26th, 2009
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During my second tour in Iraq, with the 3rd Brigade 3rd Infantry Division, several of my friends and I closely followed the development of a new and improved GI Bill for veterans of the Global War on Terrorism. Even early on in the drafting of the bill to overhaul the GI Bill, into something more like the benefits package enjoyed by veterans of WW2, details looked very promising. Promising enough to make leaving active duty as a non-commissioned officer, even when faced with enlistment bonuses in excess of $50,000, to finish a college education a very appealing prospect.
When the bill was signed into law, in July 2008, I was camping with my parents in Zion National Park and enjoying my terminal leave. My phone, which had not seen even a single bar of signal in many hours, rang loudly as one of my old Army buddies called to give me the news and details of the GI Bill that would supposedly make our goals in higher education much easier to achieve. Both of us were skeptical of how well things would work once actually implemented, as we were both stop-lossed and well understood the unparalleled ability of our government to drop the ball on its end of a deal.
Dropping the ball is about the most polite way to phrase the epic failure that is the Department of Veteran Affairs’ handling of the entire Post-9/11 GI Bill (Ch. 33) system. There were 10 months between the signing of the bill into law, and the opening of the application process for Ch. 33 benefits, and more than a full year before the first payments would roll out. Somehow, even with that much time, the VA was unable to coordinate with the states and institutes of higher learning to have things ready for Fall 2009.
As soon as the application process opened I submitted the appropriate paperwork to both change schools and programs. Four short days passed before I received one of the coveted certificates of eligibility for my new school, and new major. I was informed that the election of Ch. 33 would be processed at a later date. That date was roughly four and a half months later. Nearly a solid three months into the semester. A solid three months during which I had to dig quite the debt-filled hole because I did not have the housing allowance I was promised, nor did I have the book and supplies stipend I was promised, nor were my tuition and fees paid.
My case is far from the only of its kind. More than 100,000 veterans are in the same, rapidly sinking, boat. To address this, the VA issued emergency $3,000 “advance payment” checks at Regional VA Offices around the nation to veterans that could produce a few simple pieces of documentation. I went and took advantage of the $3,000 check, even though it fails to cover even the housing money they owe me. What can I say, I was very close to being unable to pay any of my bills. Electing to beat back the possibility of ruining my otherwise excellent credit score, I used that money to pay off some of the ~$6,000 in personal debt I was forced to take on by the VA dropping the ball. That decision was hedged on a bet that the VA could not possibly take another full month to pay my tuition.
Now, with full disclosure in mind, there were circumstances surrounding my specific claim that quite likely threw an extra kink in the pipes. I was overpaid for the Spring 2009 semester, and filed for a waiver (which was promptly denied). This, as it well should, definitely caused a backup on the payment end of the deal. However, I paid what the VA claimed I owed them immediately upon receiving my denial letter. Ironically, when I called to make that payment the VA was unaware they had denied my claim. Apparently postal mail moves faster then their computer system. We will ignore the fact that the ~$900 I owed the VA for their overpayment amounts to roughly one third of the amount they owed me for tuition alone, and will certainly not imply that it would have been incredibly simple to deduct the overpayment from what the VA owes me in housing allowance money.
What the above circumstances do not explain is how on Earth it took the VA four and a half months to determine that a veteran with 4 years, 11 months, and 26 days of continuous active duty military service beginning in March of 2003 was eligible for Ch. 33 benefits. Glancing at my DD214, a document the VA certainly has available, in at least triplicate, would quickly reveal to anyone able to read that I do in fact have more than the required 36 months of post-9/11 service to qualify for Ch. 33.
Fast forward to this very day. In the mail was a wonderful letter, dated 21-Oct-2009, from the VA informing me that I was 100% eligible for Ch. 33! Thing were looking up, until I read how much the VA sent (none of which has made it to The University of Houston, or my bank account). People that know me are well aware that I take a hands-on approach to pretty much everything, and will know I am serious when I say I was literally standing next to the kind VA lady at UofH when she typed in and submitted the balance the VA owed for my account. Here is an image to illustrate the breakdown:
Those numbers add up to $2,599.15. This is the balance my account summary shows due at UofH, and the amount the VA owes for this semester. The amount for which they claim to have sent in payment? $1,599.15. Interesting, right? My best guess is that someone cannot type, and instead of entering $1,153.55 for my fees typed in $153.55. No big deal, just a grand right? Wrong. Like many people in today’s economy I cannot simply will an extra $1,000 into my wallet. Taking the above mess into consideration, I would be insane not to worry that the emergency loan I took to pay my tuition will not be paid on time. After all, it took four and a half months for the VA to figure out I was eligible. Since it only took me about 32 seconds to figure out how the VA miscalculated what they owed me, my guess is that it takes them roughly 4 months to come to the same conclusion. By then I’ll be asking “Would you like fries with that?”