Soldiers of Misfortune

Veterans wait (and wait) for their GI Bill benefits

United States Navy veteran Jose Bellow's education has been anything but easy. A first-year nursing student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Bellow planned on attending college with the help of monthly reimbursements from the GI Bill. Now, one month before the school year ends, Bellow says he hasn't seen a dime of government aid.

"They're saying I'll probably start receiving payments by the end of May, but if it's going to take another God-knows-how-many months again -- honestly, I don't know what to do," says Bellow. The 25-year-old veteran says he first contacted the Department of Veterans Affairs last September about receiving his GI Bill benefits.

"What can I really do?" Bellow muses. "I call the guys at the VA, and they say, 'Oh, well, there's a lot of paperwork.' Thank God for Mom and Dad."

Bellow is one of thousands of military veterans and reservists across the Midwest experiencing unprecedented delays in receiving monthly education checks from the VA. Owing to the nation's military obligations, the past few years have seen many reserve units activated, deactivated and reactivated.

For the VA's St. Louis-based regional processing center, this means that each time a reservist re-enrolls in school, his or her education claims must be resubmitted. The influx has caused a mountain of paperwork, and VA officials say they're struggling under the increased workload.

"This is very unusual for us to have this many claims pending at once," says St. Louis veterans affairs spokeswoman Sandra Davenport. "We're really doing everything we can. Everybody that can is helping out. We're taking people away from other jobs so they can process claims."

To date, the St. Louis office -- which handles claims for veterans and reservists in 15 Midwestern states -- has more than 20,000 pending claims. More than 7,500 claims have taken more than 30 days to process, and nearly 75 others have taken more than 3 months to complete. The St. Louis processing center aims to turn around first-time educational claims in 25 days, but the office is now warning schools and students that it may take between eight and ten weeks.

For veterans like Bellow, the delay has strained financial resources. "We've paid out $3,200 this year," he says. "I'm very fortunate to have my parents help me out."

Hoping to remedy the situation, the St. Louis office has hired additional staff and allocated money for overtime. "We've hired some new folks; we have some folks that we've reassigned," says Davenport. "We're working overtime in order to get the claims processed. We really see the need of getting this done before fall semester starts."

Signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1944, the GI Bill was originally designed to provide fresh opportunities to veterans returning from World War II. Under the newer Montgomery GI Bill, the military reimburses soldiers and reservists for up to $36,000 in educational expenses over a ten-year period. Each month GI Bill beneficiaries must certify that they are still attending an approved school before the military will cut them a check. Monthly checks for a full-time student can be for as much as $1,004.

The St. Louis regional office estimates that last year it paid more than $478 million in educational benefits to roughly 100,000 men and women.

While backlogs are common, this year the office has seen an unprecedented influx of claims. "Our current pending workload is the highest we've experienced," says Douglas Bragg, education officer for the processing center. "We're about 15 percent higher than we were a year ago. It's been stiff."

Adds Bragg: "We here in the Midwest have a high reserve population. They've been called up and deactivated, and called up and deactivated. That generates a lot of claims. We've gotten a lot of extra work basically because of the activation and deactivation of reserve units."

The bump in paperwork has left many Midwestern veterans and reservists waiting to be reimbursed for books and tuition. "We have had about 200 students affected by the delays," says Christian Basi, spokesman for the University of Missouri-Columbia.

To help students in a financial bind, Basi says, the Columbia campus has made available short-term loans at no interest. "To my knowledge we've had seven students talk to us about the loans. [The loans] vary from as little as the student wants up to the amount that [the student is] expecting."

Students in the community college system have also been affected by the delays. "We tell students that it could be between eight and ten weeks," says Mike Cundiff, acting manager of admissions and registration at the Meramec campus. Cundiff estimates that roughly 5 percent of the estimated 300 GI Bill beneficiaries who attend Meramec have received similar short-term loans.

Meanwhile, administrators at UM-St. Louis say that if any of their roughly 250 military students have experienced delays, it has not come to the administration's attention. "We have not received any complaints from students that their benefit packages are late," says university spokesman Bob Samples. "It doesn't mean that they're not, but we wouldn't know unless the student contacted us, because the checks go directly to the students, not to the institution."

Similarly, Bill Witbrodt, director of student financial services at Washington University, says that none of the eighteen military students who attend the university has complained about a lag in their benefits.

The VA's Bragg is confident his office can slog through the bureaucratic morass in the near future. He says that it's now taking the office an average of 43 days to handle first-time claims and 23 days to process continuing claims -- well over the office's targets of 25 and 13 days, respectively.

"Considering the extra amount of work that's come in, we've done a really good job of keeping this from getting out of line," maintains Bragg. "Once all of our new hires get trained up, we'll be at full strength to attack the next peak workload that will come with the fall enrollment."

But that's cold comfort for the likes of Navy vet Bellow. "I purely understand, but if you're estimating an increased amount of claims, you need to start bringing some more people in -- people are suffering," he says. "What are we supposed to do if we can't pay our tuition? Quit school?"