Somewhere on the fringe of your memory, you may recall a post I made about the utter failure of the Department of Veteran Affairs to competently roll out the Post-9/11 GI BIll. My story is not unique in any way. My story is shared by, literally, hundreds of thousands of veterans of our ongoing armed conflicts. Veterans who promised something to their country, and upheld that promise. A promise, in the form of the Post-9/11 GI Bill (Ch33 hereafter), was made to us and has not been honored to a degree anyone could consider acceptable.
Four months. That is how long it took the VA to figure out I was eligible for Ch33. Keep in mind I had already been in the VA’s system for education benefits for a year under the Montgomery GI Bill, and am also in the VA’s system for disability and compensation. The requirements for Ch33 eligibility are simply not that hard to vet, especially not for veterans of an active-duty component. Did the veteran have 36 or more months of continuous active-duty service after September 11, 2001, and receive an honorable discharge? One sheet of paper contains all of this information, and the VA has this sheet of paper with my name on it in at least triplicate. Even the laziest of unskilled work could make it through literally thousands of these claims in a single day if motivated by a bacon double-cheeseburger. I will stop trying to understand how the VA failed to do this, because it defies all logic and I’m not sure even Socrates could come up with an explanation.
Roughly two more months have passed, and my Fall 2009 claim is still incomplete. When the VA found someone able to muster the will to read my DD214 and determine that my honorable discharge after 4 years, 11 months, and 26 days of continuous active-duty service did in fact mean I was eligible for Ch33, they fumbled the ball again. The University of Houston submitted my tuition and fees to the VA correctly, the VA turned around and certified me for a full $1000 less than I was owed. Immediately, I contacted the VA and informed them of their mistake. As far as they were concerned, it must have been my mistake. I got the school to call, and explain exactly what the mistake was and the VA agreed with them. “We will get this fixed,” they said. My account summary at UH still shows a $1000 debt owed. I have already taken half of my finals, and registered for Spring 2010 courses.
If you think that is pitiful, hold on to your chair, it gets worse. Remember the $3000 emergency advance payment the VA so graciously offered when they had veterans dropping out of college, because of the mountains of debt they built up, because the VA failed to deliver BAH payments as promised? I took one of these checks and was informed shortly thereafter the debt would be settled by withholding BAH payments when my claim was finally processed. When I finally got my money in early November, there was $3000 too much money. In early December, I got a full BAH payment for the month of November. The VA still isn’t withholding the money. That’s great, right? Free money! All my problems are, surely, gone! Wrong. Even if the overpayment is entirely the fault of the VA, you will pay it back. This has happened to me before. I have no desire to deal with the same sort of insanity again; I put away $3000 somewhere I wouldn’t touch it until either the VA withholds from my future BAH payments, or sends me a another debt-collection notice. Fool me once…
A contact within the Department of Veteran Affairs got me this response to an inquiry about settling the debt from the GI Bill head-honcho Keith Wilson:
“VA is currently developing the process to collect the amount of advance payments received. When the process is developed, VA will provide notification to all students that received an advance payment to ensure they understand the process and their questions are answered.”
If anyone else feels like that is the non-answer of the century, I am glad I have company. Why call veterans, and explain to them that the debt would be settled by withholding from BAH payments if that was not actually the plan?
As the semester draws to an end, I cannot say I look forward to Spring 2010. Allegedly, claims have yet to begin processing for the new semester and that is just another disaster waiting to happen. Ch33 was meant to afford veterans of our most recent wars the ability to go to school and focus only on school. We would not need to work, because we would get a housing allowance. We would not need to worry about how many hours we were taking, because our tuition and fees would be covered. Instead, we were not paid either on time. Instead, fighting to get what we were owed before we had to drop out, or risk drowning in a pool of debt, became a full-time job that robbed us of many hours that could have been spent studying.
This has been said many times, but is worth repeating again. Failing to plan, is planning to fail. The VA failed to plan, and failed us all.
For more information on the Post-9/11 GI Bill, and some of the ways you can fight back against the VA when they fail to do their jobs, go visit newgibill.org.
Finals are over, my grades have been posted, and the VA has still not paid for their $1000 mistake in my fees. I have tried to call, every single day, for several days and still cannot get anyone on the phone at the VA. This is absolutely maddening. I shudder to think of how the veterans even less fortunate than myself are taking things, especially this close to Christmas.
People ask me what I want for Christmas. Now I know. Give me a competently run GI Bill, and an effective Department of Veteran Affairs. That is all I want, and it will last me a lifetime.
Christmas has come and gone, and I had a good one. What I did not have, however, was resolution of my ongoing issues with the VA. In fact, things have become even more interesting.
The VA apparently uses Twitter now. Personally, I think they might want to master the technology they already use before they branch out too far into social media. Below is what the VA sent me regarding one of my tweets about underpayment of fees.
From @VAVetBenefits: @anthonymartinez Check w/ your certifying official to see what amounts your school submitted to VA for payment as that is what we pay.
Is that so? I have two documents, which I have scanned (with my personal information redacted) and uploaded here, proving otherwise. In addition to those documents, the VA’s own question system has an open and unresolved entry under my account about the underpayment of my fees started by a VA employee. Since a picture is worth 1000 words, and I have already exceeded 1000 words in this post, look below (click the photo for a larger view). I got lazy with my redaction of personal information, but note the areas highlighted by neon-green arrows.
Update #3 – Resolved
From @VAVetBenefits: @anthonymartinez Resolved. Thanks for the info and good luck!
This tweet appeared on my TweetDeck on December 30, 2009. Last night, on my way to my younger brother’s wedding, I got mail from the VA office in Muskogee dated December 29, 2009, that acknowledged the underpayment and informed me they had sent the appropriate $1000 payment to my university.
Big thanks to @DeptVetAffairs and @VAVetBenefits on Twitter for working hard to get my issue resolved. Without them, I’m not sure I’d have ever been paid. Another thanks goes out to Paul Rieckhoff of Iraq and Afganistan Veterans of America for his retweets of my updates here on the blog and the work his organization does to help other veterans in positions even worse than my own.