UT Vets Among Those Held Up by VA Backlog

Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans at UT cope with waiting for GI benefits

In June 2008, after some initial hesitation over cost, President George W. Bush signed the new GI Bill into law, granting veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—the longest in American history—the most generous benefits since the post-World War II era. Current servicemembers, veterans, National Guard, and reservists who had actively served 90 or more days since Sept. 11, 2001, could apply to receive money to cover tuition, books, and living expenses corresponding to their amount of time served.

Veterans began registering for the new benefit in July of this year, but on Aug. 1, when the law went into effect, payments were nowhere to be found. The Department of Veterans Affairs had been inundated with 270,000 applications and could not process them quickly enough. By the end of September, it had completed a scant 10 percent of those, and many veterans who depended on this funding and had already enrolled in classes were left in the dark.

"People didn't have any money, we didn't know when we were going to get paid," says Patrick Lucas, president of Veterans at UTK and a marine sergeant reservist majoring in economics. "So everyone was just kind of sitting there on bated breath like, ‘Okay, are going to get paid today? Today? Today?' and the VA didn't really know what was going on."

The VA initially told veterans to wait out the backlog while applications were processed. Lucas says this was frustrating but not surprising. "They're always prone to tell you, ‘Don't worry, we'll square up with you later, we'll give you your back pay when everything gets sorted out.' And that's fine and good, I've never had a problem getting my back pay from the VA when I was on active duty or anything like that, but the problem is you couldn't really pay your rent with an IOU," Lucas says.

In late September, under pressure from veterans' groups such as the Student Veterans of America, a lobby, Secretary of Veterans' Affairs Eric Shinseki authorized the release of $3,000 emergency checks for those veterans who requested them. At the University of Tennessee, Lucas says he estimates about 60-70 percent of veterans took advantage of those checks.

"We're kind of okay now, we're coming out of the tunnel, as it were," Lucas says. "In my case I got a check from the U.S. Treasury, with a picture of the Statue of Liberty on it and everything. And now it's a little bit better."

At UT there are currently 364 veterans claiming GI Bill benefits. Of that number, 195 are taking part in the new Post-9/11 benefit program, and of those 158 are veterans themselves while the rest dependants to whom benefits have been transferred.

This new GI chapter works a bit different than the former one. Rather than sending funds directly to veterans for tuition, books, and living expenses, which in Tennessee last year amounted to about $1,400 per month per student, under the new GI Bill, the money, about $1,050 per month per student, goes to veterans to cover books and living expenses while tuition is paid directly to the university. Veterans previously enrolled in the former Montgomery GI program who meet the Post-9/11 qualifications can choose to enroll in the new chapter or remain in their current one.

For Lucas, who's from Nashville and thus attends in-state, tuition is about $3,700 a semester, so switching to the new benefit made far greater financial sense.

Responding to the backlog, UT has deferred tuition payments for those who applied, and the school has also extended fee deadlines until the last day of class, rather than the end of October, so veterans wouldn't be dropped from courses. VA Affairs at UT also set up a $500 emergency book loan. "In this particular case they were awesome," Lucas says.

Out of 82,000 enrolled nationwide in classes this semester, 14,000 had still not received payments as of last week, but the VA doesn't plan to offer more emergency payments. The $3,000 checks many veterans accepted were two-month advancements, and this could be problematic because at UT, that amount exceeds the sum of two months' payments. So what the VA will likely do, Lucas says, is divide the overpayment by the remaining months in the year and deduct that from future checks.

The VA expects 150,000 veterans and dependents to apply for the Post-9/11 benefit in 2010. It has hired additional employees, an outside contractor and is working to digitize and streamline its process to avoid further complications.