Tuesday, September 01, 2009

The Politics of Purse Strings




I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened." - The one true prophet, Obi-Wan Kenobi


When the Post 9/11 Bill passed through Congress with a veto-proof majority, I cheered. When it was signed into law, I was elated. But on August 1 of this year, when the bill went live after almost three years of legislation, hopes, dreams and well-wishes, I was silent. I did not want to commemorate a non-event as a moment of triumph. I took part in lobbying on Capitol Hill for the bill when it was just that - a scrap of paper that promised financial security in a post-Army life where almost everything feels uncertain and nebulous. I knew it would take at least a month after August 1 to see how it would play out. Through fears that the VA would fumble this rare opportunity to make good on a solemn promise made by FDR sixty-five years ago, I watched August crawl by, swept up in a lazy mosaic of final exams and term papers that capped a full semester. With the old GI Bill in hand and the new one on the way, I took a leap of faith. With my bank account dwindling and rent, utility bills, school tuition and other obligations on the table, coupled with the advice of my VA counselor, I bet it all on the Post 9/11 GI Bill.

And I lost.

A bit about the old GI Bill first. Most people generally misunderstand how the old GI Bill, hereafter referred to as Chapter 30, is paid to veterans. When a veteran enrolls in college, he must go to a VA counselor at the campus and fill out paperwork. First you must declare a major and select classes that specifically fulfill that major's criteria. I originally signed up for journalism, so I was restricted to only take core curriculum or journalism-centric classes. The amount of money received is calculated by the amount of semester hours taken. A full load of twelve hours with my optional pay-in (a kicker) of $600 yielded $1400 for every month enrolled. That money is paid directly to the student to pay for tuition, books, school fees and other expenses. If enrolled at a state school where tuition exceeded that amount, the difference is up to the student to make up.

The payments from Chapter 30 are retroactive by a month. For example, I started summer school in June, but my first payment was not made until the first week of July. I was paid for July the first week of August. This window does not allow for tuition to be paid when it is due, typically before classes start. The student must come up with that money on their own. Many veterans depend on Chapter 30 not only to pay for classes but for sustainability. That always-late payment is the difference between a warm bed and an eviction notice in many cases.

The Post 9/11 GI Bill, also known as Chapter 33, is more akin to the original GI Bill of 1944. Instead of a flat rate that fails to keep up with ever-rising tuition, the VA pays the school the tuition up front at the beginning of the semester and will pay up to the most expensive in-state school. Additionally, housing allowance equivalent to a married E-5 with dependents is paid to the student each month, based on the school's ZIP code. To sweeten the deal, a stipend of $1000 per year is paid to the student for books and other miscellaneous expenses. These payments go straight to the student, so if they can get their budgets in order, it can translate to a decent amount of pocket change to mitigate the burden of balancing full time loads of work and school.

Those education benefits are law - they must be dished out for anyone who qualifies for them. But the unstoppable force of government mandates did not anticipate the immovable object that oversees the transition from Chapter 30 to Chapter 33 - the Department of Veteran's Affairs. Despite Chapter 33 becoming law more than a year ago, the VA, in a signature move, was slow to implement rules and conditions that clearly defined how and what veteran students would be paid. Even though they anticipated a huge upswing in applications, they did not start accepting paperwork on Chapter 33 until July. Now they're getting crushed with a six week backlog, but the VA staffers aren't the ones suffering with the surge of applications, the students are.

Under the old bill, Chapter 30, the student must call a hot line on the last day of the month to certify that their status has not changed since the previous month. The payment is then sent to the student in seven to ten days. It has become a ritual for veteran students, a promise to see that beautiful deposit in a week's time. But today, some who have submitted paperwork for Chapter 33 might find the certification for Chapter 30 a bit of a challenge. My school's VA counselor assured a seamless transition - he told me those who were switching over would get paid for the months they already paid tuition for. Once again, someone forgot to forward the memo. Since my claim for Chapter 33 is still being processed, I'm locked out of Chapter 30. Even though I paid for the summer semester, I am not getting paid for August. My case is in limbo, familiar territory for the VA. My bills, on the other hand, are very clearly defined. They pile up as fast as the VA's backlogs.

The VA counselors at my school buy salt in bulk to pour into the wounds of the students they are purported to serve. One in particular lambasts me whenever I call with a legitimate question regarding veteran benefits. With his trademark condescending tone, he sharply rebuked my questions about a delay in payments, suggesting that I should have been following the news of backlogged certifications, despite his assurance that the transition would not allow a payment disparity. Oh, to be tongue-lashed for not doing his job for him! He heartily laughed at my question of when to expect my next payment. In that brief moment, he acknowledged the absurdity of my situation - he didn't know, and there is no way to find out. He could not even venture a guess but did not rule out weeks or even a month. The check is in the mail, I am told. That old line doesn't work for my landlord, and it wouldn't get past my utility company. But for the government agency responsible for the benefits going out to the men and women who have served this country in a time of war, with the basic sustenance of thousands of veterans in the balance, it's business as usual.

I believe in the idea that people get the government they deserve. But do veterans get the VA they deserve? How many obscene scandals, misappropriations and misdiagnoses does it take to see there's a rotten core at the center? The VA's budget shot up and Shienseki was brought in to clean house. I'm waiting for answers from him while racking up a lot more questions.

From the Huffington Post, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki:

We face tremendous uncertainties and challenges as a Nation--economic, diplomatic, environmental, and social. We need motivated, energetic and highly educated young people to help us find solutions. We need to find ways, as America has before, to turn uncertainty into opportunity. The Post-9/11 G.I. Bill is a very good place to start.

Update: September 1, 1 PM - Within hours of this post going live, I was given the opportunity to discuss my situation with Keith Wilson, the Veterans Benefits Administration Director of Education Service at the VA. Keith was eager to assist me with my situation and is looking into the matter. I still have many questions to ask, not only for myself but on the behalf of other veterans who find themselves between a rock and the VA. I will keep you all updated, but in the meantime, fellow student veterans, use the comments section or my email (hortonhearsit at hotmail dot com) to send me questions or concerns you may have. The more detailed the picture I can present to the head honchos, the better they will be at finding solutions.

24 comments:

Jacob said...

Dude, I feel your pain. Submitted my stuff in July, and all I got was a letter telling me that my education benefits were terminated. Have you called the VA yet? They said that for this semester (which I paid for out of pocket), I may not even see a dime until November. VA dropping the ball as usual.

Anonymous said...

Last Summer, since the my first GI bill payment was only for the last week of August, I couldn't make my rent...it was too difficult to work and go to school at the same time, so I went to the vet center and they gave me $450 to pay the rent. It seemed like they knew a lot of guys there by name, as a lot of the older vets have fallen on hard times.

Anyway, I totally understand you predicament, I'm waiting on my check to pay bills as well, and the child support office doesn't really care about a VA backlog...So good luck, and check out your vet center.

CJ said...

Dude, This is very worrying. I'll be linking to this. Have you spoken with other veterans having the same issues?

13 Stoploss said...

Sorry to hear, Dude. My VA counselor at the JC was himself a VA student, and one of my first friends on campus. Since moving to the University, my new counselor is an interim Director who received training from my JC's VA dude. She's very nice, and is doing all in her ability to make sure we're taken care of.

The biggest difference for me is the amount of aid I am receiving between the two schools. Last year, at the JC, I received $3200 in grants and scholarships. For '09-'10 at the U, that number has jumped to $17,900. This is in addition to to 100% state tuition and the eventual $2152 per month allowance for my zip code. This effectively allows me to pay my tuition and fees directly from the aid, for which I can then be reimbursed when the GI Bill money comes in. I've already figured out, that between grant and scholarship aid, and the Gi Bill monies, I'll be bringing in about $42k during the full school year, which is not bad when my mortgage is roughly $350 a month. (This bum is NOT getting a job)

Now, with that mentioned, here is what I, and my wife (Chapter 31 - Vocational Rehabilitation) have learned from observation. The tuition and the housing money are separate from each other. When your new semester/quarter paperwork is submitted, the tuition should arrive in 6-8 weeks. In California, this has been delayed greatly because state fees had not been finalized until just two weeks ago. Since that is a once a semester/quarter occurrence, the WAVE enrollment certification (for the new GI Bill) that we do once a month is what authorizes our monthly stipend paid at the E5 w/ dependents BAH rate of your zip code. This is the part that should come quickly, or at least on time. It is also the part that is least influenced by your shitty VA office at school. They take care of the school stuff, not the other, monthly stipend stuff.

The great news is that we're living through the worst part--the beginning. I expect delays next year, but the thing should be figured out by then so as not to disrupt tuition and fees.

Anonymous said...

Very well written Alex. I hope somebody fixes this soon. I've noticed that our own country does not care about what all of us went through overseas. For the VA to pull these kind of shenanigans is a disgrace. This should be made know to the whole country, maybe then they'll get off their asses and fix this broken system.

NUGHT said...

I don't know what to say bro... hopefully it all works out in the end... I hate when red tape ruins great policies and programs...

sorry man, this sucks...

Anonymous said...

Alex,
If you are really in a pinch, youcan get help from the American Legion near you.
As always, though, the squeaky Dude gets the grease!! Hang in there...

Not anonymous, but
DefendUSA

(Open id would not work for some reason...)

The Long Slow Goodbye said...

Been looking forward to your next post and was more than a little concerned to read about the VA messing up on your end. I'm making the leap here that if Jason is getting his GI Bill money you should be too, which lays the blame at the door of your less than helpful VA rep.

You've learned by now that less than confident people are threatened by the competent ones and use whatever leverage they may have to belittle and make life difficult for others. We call these people losers. Sadly, they make their way up the mess-up-and-move-up ladder where they feel free to torture the rest of us.

You've also learned the power of the squeaky wheel. It isn't fair that you should have to fight for what you're entitled to. But you know its worth doing. I'd bet my next medicare check that you know this isn't the first time American vets have had to fight for what they're owed -- perhaps another camp-out in WA is in order....

My father and his generation benefited from the original GI Bill and their combined educations produced an era of advances we've not seen since.


I have high hopes for this generation of vets Alex. You're bright, you've seen some of the world, and you're determined. Thank goodness you're determined. If America gets lucky, the business-as-usual leaders, politicans, lackluster press, and the money starved sciences will be replaced by and benefit from the optimism and vision of a new generation of college educated veterans.

We need you all.

~P~

PS: please know I consider the blogosphere more informative than the customary press. Yeah, it has its crazies but it also has its Michael Yons, is Jasons and Suspects and its Alex Hortons =)

CI-Roller Dude said...

Wow, that confused the heck out of me. When I first went to kollege after I got out of the real army in 1976, the VA was so full of retards, that they messed up my pay for 6 months. I had to hock my favorite rifle and eat left over C-rations.
I work close with the folks at the local kollege who work with the Vet students...they say the VA is still full of retards.
They didn't hire any extra workers a the VA for education offices, or the VA hospitals! So the retards are overworked.

If I pissed off any VA folks, good. Get your shit together. No wonder the VA hospitals have to have a full time police force to protect the workers...it's not really the war that caused the PTSD, it's trying to deal with the VA aftewards.

Good luck. If you find the journalism classes too hard, try the police classes. They were easy for me.

Ms. Missive said...

I have nothing negative to say about it...yet.

I applied for the post 9/11 GI Bill and received my certification 2 weeks later in the mail (in July). The next day I took that piece of paper to my school. I registered for classes and they paid my portion of tuition almost immediately. (It was 60% tution because of "only" 15 months of deployment with my National Guard unit)

Right now everything has moved so damn fast, I was shocked. They did a great job getting my National Guard GI Bill transferred to the Post 9/11 GI Bill.

But I did ask my VA Counselor about the monthly housing allowance payment because I always used WAVE's or called the 800# every month. She couldn't help at all with that.

So I decided to wait until the 1st of the month thinking perhaps it would come automatically. It's not here... yet.

So, my tuition was paid but I haven't seen my monthly living stipend.

Ms. Missive said...

Also, I just read this on the GI Bill Home website:

"Some of you might see some money from us in your bank accounts today (Aug 26, 2009).
Individuals eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill and with a certified
enrollment period during August were to receive their first housing
allowance payment starting September 1st, 2009 (remember the housing
allowance is paid in arrears). It's recently come to our attention that some
housing allowance payments have been processed early and that some of you
might be receiving them in your bank account or by mail starting today.

If this happens to you please be aware that this is your allowance payment
for the month of August, and that your next housing allowance payment will
not take place till on or after October 1, 2009. "

J.A.M. said...

A few questions...

So do we need to do any kind of certifying? My school VA rep. can't tell me anything. (and honestly, I am brand new to the GI bill.)

How do we know when we might be paid or where we even are in the backlog. Once again, my school rep. tells me everything has been submitted. He gave me some long number and told me I could call the VA to check...(I think I'll pass on sitting on the phone on hold for 2 hours.)

I saw something that said the stipend is paid in quarterly increments. That would be nice...arrears would suck.

Thanks for giving a voice to the average Vet.

Stacy0311 said...

Transfer to Texas State down in San Marcos. The VA reps down there are great. Never had a problem with Ch 30.

Brad said...

I'm new to your blog (I like it) and I hope things work out for you.

"The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional as to how they perceive the Veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their country."
George Washington, 1789

The government, and the people, need to be reminded that the men and women who serve deserve the best we can give them. Somehow I don't think George Washington would be proud.

Alex said...

J.A.M.,

The only thing we can do ourselves is send in the application paperwork. Once they receive it, it's up to your VA counselor to certify your enrollment (making sure you're taking the right classes for your degree plan and all that). One of the many reasons my case is jacked is because my counselor didn't submit until a few days ago.

Your second question is probably the most important to all of us, and no one has a good answer. When I asked my counselor, he laughed into the phone like I asked what the meaning of life. All he could tell me was that the VA had received my paperwork. "Well, where in the process am I? How long does it take from receiving paperwork to processing of funds?" He didn't understand the question, which seemed pretty clear to me.

He acknowledged the horrible wait on the VA helpline, so he said he'd call them for me and see what he could find. When he got hold of a person, their system was down! They couldn't look at anything! You can't make this shit up.

Stacy,

I never had a problem with Chapter 30 until I attempted to switch.

I was going to transfer to Texas State this fall until I found the Health and Kinesiology credits wouldn't transfer over, leaving me with 29, one short of the 30 minimum. I was told by admissions I'd have to apply as a freshman, but I never took the SAT, ACT and my high school GPA hovered somewhere between 1 and 2. It was only later that I found you could haggle with admissions if you're that close. But hey, it worked out. If I was accepted this fall, I would be even more screwed. I can handle the tuition cost at ACC until Chapter 33 kicks in. Texas State would have drained my bank account.

In any case, I hope to make it there by next spring. I now have enough credits and I just qualified for Phi Theta Kappa. Should be good enough this time around.

13 Stoploss said...

Dude,

PTK is good stuff. I did it for two semesters, and I like to think it helped on my transcripts.

Also, I hope you filled out FAFSA. And if you did, you're probably as broke as I am (despite my having 3 additional dependents). If so, you should easily qualify for some grant money. On top of that, the Horatio Alger Military Scholarship is another great place to start for some extra cash. It's $5k spread over four years; I use it on books, and live off the grants and monthly stipend.

Last thing to think about: my situation has not changed drastically from last year to this year, but the amount of grant money I got as a result of FAFSA for the UC is 6x greater than what I got at the Community College. Something to keep in mind when you do transfer...

Anonymous said...

Hi-

-I've appreciately read a number of your blog posts and I don't know what to think.

My brother graduated from H.S. earlier this summer and is completing his USMC basic training at some point in September and shall be deployed to Afghanistan by the end of this month or in October after advanced infantry training and I am scared for him due to several factors and circumstances.

I didn't agree with the immediacy of invading Iraq in 2003 or how long the Afghanistan action has been extended without the accomplishment of the initial objectives or original motives for initially establishing a presence there.

To me my brother's life objectives & motive for joining,perhaps his adolescent perspective,possibly his self-image and,very much,his H.S. activities are similar to what you've posted about yourself throughout your blog posts.

I love my brother.

I am having difficulty acknowledging any level of consideration concerning the possiblility about either his partial or complete physical loss as a human being and psychological,
emotional,intellectual or metaphysical pathologies which may initiate and develop due to everyday patrolling in Afghanistan for an unknown period.

I wished that he never enlisted-I have to accept that he did since it is his choice.

I don't want to wonder what if.
I don't want to miss him.

Alex said...

Thanks for the tips Jason. I thought the GI Bill nullified any chance of student aid since you're already getting federal assistance. I'll have to look into that. Maybe it'd be enough to drop my crappy part time job.

SomeIraqVeteran said...

I wrote about the new post-9/11 GI Bill on my blog, trying to break it down for people.

Unfortunately, although I applied for benefits in July I did not receive the certificate of eligibility prior to the start of classes this semester - so I've had to sit this term out.

I did receive a letter stating they received my app and were overworked (or something to that effect), but that was weeks ago. At this point I'm hoping I'll have approval for next semester, and that it doesn't screw me up too much with prerequisites since my program is kinda based on a traditional school calendar.

C'est la vie, I guess - at least when dealing with government employees.

Joe said...

GI Bill definitely stacks with university based grants (any combat veteran/guardsmen/reservist type stuff), pell grants, and any work study or federal sub'd loans you want to take.

Britt said...

Amen brother. I am in a similar situation. When it comes to government agencies.. I know how they run like molasses going uphill in winter. I submitted my Application for chapter 33 the DAY they opened up eligibility for enrollment. Received my cert of eligibility in the mail, things seemed to be going savvy. My semester started in July through the end of September, so my va coordinator put in paperwork for chapter 33 for the months of Aug and September. Because of a mistake on their end i now have to wait for 8 weeks for them to fix a seemingly simple mistake. Due to their "unprecedented backlog" Like it's any of our fault their more unorganized than third world flea market. And living in Hawaii on my part time job to supplement full time College is no picnic. Anyway that's my gripe.. Just wanted you to know your not alone.

crjohnson10 said...

Good morning! My name is Craigan Johnson, former Marine infantryman. There's been quite a bit of angst and upset with the Department of Veterans Affairs, but here's an upsetting example of a new problem that happened to me.

I filled out my chapter 33 GI bill application back in July, when it was just becoming available. I paid my school's minimal tuition out of my pocket, to be sure I didn't lose my enrollment. I then waited patiently, knowing that the VA would take a little time. Unlike a lot of veterans, I had a small amount of savings that could tide me over until my benefit package arrived.

September came and passed, and on September 25, I received my letter from the VA stating what they approved me for and I breathed a little easier. When I applied for my Chapter 33 GI bill I requested that I be sent a physical paper check to my mailing address. I figured that I would see it in the next few days. However, I didn't. The VA had announced that they would issue the emergency benefit checks, which I thought was a noble thing, and I may have to resort to them if my check didn't come soon.
A couple more weeks passed by. My mortgage payment grew nearer, and I had already paid a second installment on my tuition. I didn't have the money for my mortgage. Yesterday (October 6) I called the VA tuition hot-line to see if they could verify where my check was, and perhaps see if I should go ahead and get the emergency check just in case.

Turns out that my Chapter 33 GI Bill benefits had been paid via direct deposit. To someone who is not me.

And here's the real deal breaker; I never supplied the VA with any financial institution's name, no routing number, no account number, nothing. Someone in the VA deliberately falsified information and paid a complete stranger, perhaps someone who's never been in the military my benefits. Better still, they set up an auto-pay direct deposit to always pay this mystery character. Had I not called, every penny of my GI Bill would be paid to some random Joe.

I had to contact VA Direct Deposit and begin an investigation on this incident. I have yet to be called back. Luckily the VA enacted the emergency check fund, right? Wrong. Since their payment system says that I have been paid my benefit, I was denied an emergency check. I'm being punished for someone's mistake or malicious intent.

The sad thing is, if someone did intentionally move the money (which is seems it had to be, a bank name, routing number and account number came from somewhere) this could have happened to other veterans as well. And the terrible thing is, there's no way we'd ever know if we don't ask.

I sure do hope the fellow I sold my 1858 Remington shotgun likes it as much as I did. But I suppose I'd rather keep my house.


--Craigan

Anthony said...

I don't know how I missed this excellent post before, but I did. We're in the same sinking boat, and I wrote a similar (and about equally verbose) "love letter" to the VA as well. Epic failure is probably the quickest way to sum up the entire ordeal.

Be prepared to be screwed again next semester.

Funny how what was meant to be the best thing to happen to OIF/OEF veterans has ended up being the worst thing we've had to deal with off the battlefield.

jazz said...

**STICKY THIS ON GOOGLE**

About TIME someone wrote the real truth. This COMING from a Media Rated Sailor as well.

You missed some pieces there, buddy.
High seas or not, some people just dont come back.Those that do, if not injured or abused in the process of war to the point of hurting others, DEMAND the GUARANTEED benefits upon discharge.

I was not injured nor have I suffered mental issues. The Pentagon can say what they want about my discharge. It was fraudulent retirement, and it CANNOT be reversed. The sad part is that the payouts do not cover living expenses. I have been bankrupted since before I got out.

As if taking half of my last chain of command up on treason charges isnt enough, the debauchery with the VA continues.

I too was suckered into the *NEW* nice and *SHINY* Va bill only to be let down.

I converted between semesters.
Here is what happened:

1) I was still billed from the former university, which despite contempt charges for bankruptcy, continues to harass me for payment. This occurs form the next university as well, who REFUSED to WAIT for funding from the VA under CH33 guidelines.

2) There was a press release?? You would think it would have aired on CNN or something. I sure a shell didnt hear about it and I have time for the evening news, despite roomates obsession with his DVR.

3) Three months later, Im STILL waiting on payment. The VA website is up and down more times than I can count. Dont bother calling, you get rejected and the system hangs up on you, even if you call as early as 4AM.

Now, to be truthful, the VA has offered payment. Whether this is a consolidation prize or not, I do not know, but the check that is supposed to resemble a BAH check for SAN DIEGO (approx. $2000/month) is laughable at best.

Im not cashing the check until its corrected. I think I got the book payments ok.

Either that or the VA graceously drafted my accounts AGAIN without permission, like they have been doing incorrectly since Feb 2008.

Since my initial enrollment, I had not the funding to pay the Universities in question, so naturally, the pied piper wants his money, despite the fact I was lied to about "waiting for (the correct) payment".

Someones pants need to be lit up. We've all waited dam long enough.

Ive already threatened with class action against the VA and VA OIG as of TWO weeks ago. Feel free to join me.

Im at rjasmin.net and Im on facebook until they start charging.I have a myspace account.