Yesterday, I sat on a blogger roundtable call with Assistant Secretary of Veterans' Affairs Tammy Duckworth and Deputy Director of Education Services Lynn Nelson. The topic was the much-publicized problems Veterans are encountering in being payed the benefits to which they are entitled to under the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
The call was respectful, but heated. Vets from several different new media outlets and organizations aired their grievances candidly. To their credit, the VA representatives on the call took the criticism in stride, acknowledged fault and agreed that the situation was unacceptable. They explained that this weekend alone, 900 workers would be working 3,000 hours of overtime to help process GI Bill claims and bring the VA closer to their self-imposed 25-day goal for processing.
This was all well and good, and it was nice to hear the VA was doing something to fix the problem. That in itself was a breath of fresh air after the conditions under which the VA had been run in the previous administration. The humility of the VA on this occasion and their commitment to fix the problem alone are praiseworthy.
But I wasn't satisfied.
As the call was coming closer to an end, it seemed to me that VA wasn't quite getting the problem exactly. They understood that they had a system full of angry Vets who weren't getting paid, but it didn't seem to me that they understood how many Vets were struggling because they weren't getting paid. So I decided to personalize the situation for them.
I told them that I had submitted the proper paperwork on the 5th of August and still had not received my housing allowance, nor had my school received my tuition payment. This means I had to pay tuition out of pocket, and have not received any of my housing entitlement for things like food and rent. I explained that this is well beyond the 25 day processing goal, as well as the the current 35 day period that VA reports as the current average. I explained that I have gone into exorbitant credit card debt and taken out loans just to get by this semester. I informed them that I had $120 in my checking account and that rent is due next week. I asked the VA representatives what they had to say to Vets in this situation.
At this point, Deputy Director Nelson let me know they could get with me after the call to insure I was taken care of. "Thank you", I said. "But that isn't what I want. I can't be the only Veteran in this situation. What are you going to say to the other Vets who are struggling like me?" I was informed that the VA was working to fix the problem.
I was skeptical. But today, fix the problem they did:
WASHINGTON - Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki announced the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has authorized checks for up to $3,000 to be given to students who have applied for educational benefits and who have not yet received their government payment. The checks will be distributed to eligible students at VA regional benefits offices across the country starting Oct. 2, 2009.
"Students should be focusing on their studies, not worrying about financial difficulties," Secretary Shinseki said. "Education creates life-expanding opportunities for our Veterans."
Starting Friday, Oct. 2, 2009, students can go to one of VA's 57 regional benefit offices with a photo ID, a course schedule and an eligibility certificate to request advance payment of their housing and book allowance. Because not all these offices are located near students, VA expects to send representatives to schools with large Veteran-student bodies and work with Veteran Service Organizations to help students with transportation needs.
A list of those VA regional offices is available at www.vba.va.gov/VBA/benefits/offices.asp.
I don't pretend to believe that my question alone led to this decision. It was but one voice in a chorus of grassroots complaints aired to the VA by many bloggers and organizations on that call, combined with the reported voices in media of Veterans all across the country who have been struggling under a failing system.
Honestly, I don't think anyone on that call or in the Vet community in general expected this. I know I didn't. The VA has shown what can be done when the agency actually cares what happens to the Veterans it serves. During the last administration, it took major scandals to get anything fixed in the Department, and then it was never corrected at this level.
On behalf of myself, and the entire Veteran community, I want to extend a personal thank you to the Department of Veterans Affairs, Assistant Secretary Duckworth and Deputy Director Nelson for making this happen, and ensuring those of us who sacrificed in uniform for our country get the assistance we deserve.