In early August of 2009, President Barack Obama stood with a group of young soldiers at George Mason University in Virginia and proudly announced that the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, which he’d sponsored in the Senate, had taken effect.
“This is not simply a debt that we are repaying to the remarkable men and women who have served,” Obama said of the bill, which provides tuition and housing support to veterans. “We are letting those who have borne the heaviest burden lead us in to the 21st century.”
Three years later, the bill has failed to deliver on its promise for tens of thousands of young veterans, according to interviews with students and administrators. Student veterans from across the country report that the Department of Veterans Affairs simply hasn’t paid their tuition yet this semester, or that it just arrived, months late. Promised housing stipends, too, remain unpaid. Veterans are dipping into their savings, facing eviction, and taking out loans to get by. The culprit appears to be simple staffing shortages and bureaucratic sluggishness, but the consequences have been intensely disruptive.
Ohio State University student Jay Sheppard, who spent eight years in the Air Force doing satellite communications, told BuzzFeed he has found himself on the brink of losing a place to live.
“Last time I called them I told them I was facing eviction and it still took them two months,” he told BuzzFeed. “This past quarter was the worst that it's ever been.”
Sheppard, who’s majoring in English, said he works odd jobs outside of school, but he’s taking 20 credit hours and can’t hold down a steady job until he graduates in June.
“I don't even have savings left anymore,” he said. “I’ve relied on family, friends, things like that.
“It just feels like you're being disrespected,” Sheppard said. “You call the VA and they put you on hold before you can speak to a representative. You’re always on hold for at least 30 minutes.”
Sheppard says he’s made four of those phone calls just this quarter. “The third time, they told me I’d receive the money in a week, and I didn’t receive the money.”
College administrators, lawyers, and government officials say the problem is simply a backlog of processing applications.
“I believe the VA just doesn’t have enough individuals dealing with these issues in each regional office,” said Carrie Weletz, a Maryland lawyer who represents veterans who appeal to the VA. Part of the problem, she said, is that legislators are eager to vote new benefits for veterans, but reluctant to expand the bureaucracy that delivers them.
“I agree with any regulation that gives more benefits to our veterans, the problem is that they don’t have the mechanisms to really institute them,” she said. “They’re just not adding enough people to process the claims and not doing it fast enough.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs could offer little more than an apology when asked by BuzzFeed about the rampant delays.
“VA apologizes for any delays and is working to remedy any issues as quickly as possible so that Veterans receive the benefits they have earned,” Veterans Administration spokesman Randy Noller told BuzzFeed in an email, acknowledging that “processing time increases during peak enrollment times, such as January-March (Spring semester) and August-October (Fall semester) which can lead to delays in high volume regions.”
There is no national tally of delayed benefits, but people familiar with the process say that the VA has backlogs of tens of thousands of unprocessed claims from the nearly 700,000 veterans who have taken advantage of the new rules since they became law two years ago. This year, the VA says it's received spring 2012 enrollments from 406,855 veterans. There are four processing centers in the country for veterans’ applications — in Buffalo, Atlanta, Muskogee, and St. Louis – and all are backlogged, officials say. The director of Veterans Affairs at Ohio State, Michael Forrest, said he’s been told there are 62,000 unprocessed claims sitting in the Buffalo branch alone.
“It’s happening at every school in the United States,” said Forrest.
Forrest’s office oversees the affairs of about 1600 veterans. Many of these veterans, like Kyle Knox, haven’t received their housing allowance or tuition yet or just received it – more than two months into the quarter.
Knox, a 26-year-old military veteran who chose not to share which branch he’s in because he’s still serving, is a junior at OSU studying journalism and communications. As of last week, he hadn’t received his monthly housing stipend since December 1st.
“I’ve had to dig into my savings to pay for everything,” Knox told BuzzFeed. “My financial account is on hold. I need to add a class and I can’t do that because my account is locked out.”
Knox stressed that he wasn’t the only one. “Everyone's got something that's creating a problem,” he said. “It's popping up everywhere.” (By the time this article was published, Knox had finally received his money from Veterans Affairs.)
Similar stories can be heard across the country.
John Williford, 25, an Iraq veteran at the University of Texas studying communications, said he was never compensated at all for classes he audited last summer at a different college.
“This last summer I went to North Carolina and was told that I could do an Internet course, something the VA approved me for, working towards my degree,” he said. “I called to make sure the GI bill would cover that class and also give me a housing stipend.” The check never came.
At the University of Texas, he said, “I know other veterans who have had to take out loans. You’re basically just S.O.L. until that check comes in.”
Among the veterans taking on debt to replace the promised checks is Kimberly Carroll, 25, a University of Texas junior who served in the Army for three years.
She told BuzzFeed she has had to take out a loan every semester that she’s qualified to use the GI Bill to pay her tuition because her benefits have never come on time.
“First of all it takes forever to get a hold of anybody,” Carroll, who is the mother of a four-year-old, said. “You need to set aside an hour just to be able to get through. I haven’t called them in a long time.”
Veterans’ advocates say it’s part of a history of dysfunction at the VA.
“There’s so much bad history and poor practices and policies, that have encrusted virtually everything they do,” said Rick Weidman, government relations director for the Vietnam Veterans of America.
Colleges, meanwhile, have sought to accommodate the delays. Forrest said that Ohio State will not expel or suspend veterans whose tuition hasn’t come in yet from Veterans Affairs, but not all schools are so tolerant.
And there are real educational and financial consequences for veterans who, for example, can’t enroll in classes yet because their tuition hasn’t been paid. Or who are forced to take out a loan, as is the policy for veterans in this situation at the University of Texas. Or who, like Sheppard, have had to dig into their savings.
Sheppard says he doesn’t understand why Veterans Affairs couldn’t have prepared better for the influx of veterans claiming benefits under the post-9/11 GI Bill.
“And it almost feels like they make it intentionally difficult to use so you won't take advantage of it,” he said. “Some people in the military would not take advantage of it because they'd see it as a giant pain in the ass.”