News

Bureaucratic tangle delays education payments to veterans

WASHINGTON—More than a year ago, Congress passed a law giving extra college money to as many as 175,000 veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan and other actions in the war on terrorism. Specifically targeting activated members of the reserves and National Guard, the new benefit is worth as much at $827 a month.

But as a second Veterans Day goes by, not a single check has been mailed and most reservists haven't even applied for it.

The program remains in bureaucratic limbo. The Department of Defense is still creating a database of eligible veterans that the Department of Veterans Affairs needs to process benefit applications. And so far, those who are eligible haven't been told they qualify.

Once processing begins, student-veterans who've been called to active duty since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks will be entitled to lump-sum retroactive payments, some worth thousands of dollars. Officials at both departments said they hoped that at least some checks would be mailed before the end of the year, but they acknowledged that they've missed previous target dates.

Students such as Gabriel Medina, 23, a history and political science major at the University of California-Riverside, will spend another Veterans Day waiting as he continues his struggle to pay for tuition, housing and other expenses.

"Trust me, this would make a big difference," said Medina, a Marine Corps reservist who spent nearly two years on active duty beginning in January 2002, including a tour in Iraq as a machine gunner. Medina, a full-time student, works two jobs, receives grants and has taken out student loans.

Medina receives $297 a month from the VA through the older Montgomery GI Bill-Selected Reserve program, also called a Chapter 1606 benefit. But he should receive more than double that under the new program, called Chapter 1607, which is supposed to reward his activation for the war in Iraq.

"We're in the same fighting role with the active-duty guys, but we don't qualify for the same educational benefits," Medina said. "I think it legitimizes our service." Active-duty military personnel are eligible for monthly education payments of up to $1,034.

In October 2004, President Bush signed the Chapter 1607 education benefit into law to give larger payments to reservists and National Guard members who were activated after Sept. 11, 2001, in response to war or national emergency.

For full-time students, Chapter 1607 provides monthly education allowances of $413 for those who served on active duty at least 90 consecutive days but less than a year. Those who serve one year but less than two years can get $620 a month. Those activated for two years or more can get $827 a month. Part-time students receive less.

Chapter 1607 also provides education benefits for the first time to activated reservists who made less than six-year commitments to service, as well as to activated members of the Individual Ready Reserve. To qualify for the benefit, they must remain in the reserves while attending school, unless they've suffered disabilities.

As many as 175,000 reservists are thought to be eligible for the new benefit, and the VA expects to pay $360 million to about 50,000 students over the next year, said Bill Susling, the assistant director of the VA's education service.

So far, 8,149 people have applied for the money, even though the VA can't process the claims until the Defense Department completes a database tracking how long reservists and Guard members served on active duty.

About 40 percent of the applications so far are from members of the reserves who are ineligible for other education benefits, Susling said. The rest receive or are eligible for the lower-paying Chapter 1606 benefits and will be entitled to retroactive payments making up the difference between the payment rates.

Under the new Chapter 1607 program, defense officials are required to notify all eligible reservists, but it's unclear when or how that will happen.

Susling said students, as well as former and potential students, shouldn't wait to be notified. If they think they may be eligible, they should apply now through the VA, he said. The benefit is retroactive to include all those activated after Sept. 11, 2001, and who've attended school since then.

"We're accumulating the claims and when everything is ready to be paid, we'll look to see if they're in the DOD data," Susling said.

Lt. Col. Bob Stone, a Defense Department reserve affairs spokesman, said the eligibility database was being checked for accuracy and could be turned over to the VA by the end of the month if no problems were discovered.

Meanwhile, students are doing without a significant amount of money, and some don't even know it.

"It's very frustrating for school officials when this kind of thing happens, when legislation is enacted but it's not implemented," said Faith DesLauriers, the legislative chairperson for the National Association of Veterans' Program Administrators. "We're the people that administer the GI Bill on the campuses, and that's really where the rubber meets the road."

DesLauriers, who's also the director of veterans affairs at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., said that while many reservists qualified for other lower-paying education benefits, she was most concerned about those students who'd never applied for any benefits.

"This goes back to 2001," she said. "I'm wondering how they're going to identify that group of people who were eligible then."

For more information about the new Chapter 1607 education benefit for activated reservists, contact your school's veterans benefits coordinator. Or call the Department of Veterans Affairs at 1-800-827-1000. Information and applications are available on the web at www.gibill.va.gov; details about the new benefit are halfway down this page.

Related stories from McClatchy DC

  Comments