Getting G.I. Benefits is a Challenge for Iowa’s Veterans in College

Main page photo of Ariela Myers and Dan Merwin on the University of Northern Iowa campus by Matthew Putney, courtesy of the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.

The Post 9/11 G.I. Bill promises a college education, paid in full, for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Getting that promise fulfilled however, is difficult for some Iowa veterans whose payments arrive as many as two months later than expected, leaving them struggling to pay for housing and other living expenses.

GI Bills chartThe reasons overlap. Communication from the Department of Veterans Affairs, and in some instances universities and colleges, has been lacking when it comes to how the G.I. Bill program works. In turn, some students don’t provide the official at their college or university who manages G.I. Bill benefits enough information about their status as a veteran in college.

Moreover, the VA has relied on paper records more than automated record keeping until a fairly recent move to electronic record-keeping.

For some, that means taking out student loans to cover the G.I. Bill benefits, working at multiple part-time jobs while in school and generally juggling everyday expenses.

“It gets hectic. I basically just paid everything out of pocket this semester,” Iraq War veteran Dwain Caldwell, 26, and a University of Northern Iowa senior from Washburn, Iowa, said. “It just comes down to cutting down on stuff because you know you're going to have to pay for books.”

WAITING FOR BENEFITS

Ariela Myers, 26, from Boulder, Colo., served active duty in the Army and was stationed in Iraq from 2008-11. Both Myers and her husband, Dan Merwin, 29, an Army veteran from McAllen, Texas, moved to Cedar Falls in 2011 to attend UNI.

Ariela Myers and her husband, Dan Merwin, are Army veterans studying at the University of Northern Iowa and dealing with delays in when they get G.I. Benefits to pay for the school expenses. Myers served in Iraq, while Merwin was stationed at McAllen, Texas.

Linh Ta/IowaWatch

Ariela Myers and her husband, Dan Merwin, are Army veterans studying at the University of Northern Iowa and dealing with delays in when they get G.I. Bill benefits to pay for the school expenses. Myers served in Iraq, while Merwin was stationed at McAllen, Texas.

“I was in the music program, and particularly wanted to study with a particular professor, so that's what brought us here. We also thought it was going to be pretty military friendly given, the location of the university,” Myers said.

Myers and Merwin live in nearby Waterloo and noticed various buildings there dedicated to veterans, such as the Sullivan Brothers Iowan Veterans Museum and the Five Sullivan Brothers Convention Center.

They were eligible for G.I. Bill benefits when they enrolled in fall 2011. Receiving the money their first semester proved tumultuous, though, as their housing stipend at that time of $903 per month was delayed by more than two months.

“I think we feel as frustrated as a lot of people do,” Myers said. “We expect a particular thing and its been promoted to us this way like, 'Oh this is great. I can go to school and I won't have to get a part time job so I can focus entirely on my degree and it's going to set me up for whatever I need to do once I'm out of the Army.' It can be frustrating. It can be a let down.”

Their first semester was only the first in which they had to wait. Myers and Merwin continue to face wait times of up to two months for their monthly housing allowance — the worst times occurring the beginning of college semesters. That’s when most veterans apply for their G.I. Bill benefits for the semester.

Paying bills is difficult when benefits run late.

“The car payment is troublesome, and I recognize that you shouldn't be relying on your education finances to pay for your car, but I know for me, that can be an issue,” Myers said. “Just watching the dwindling bank account and recognizing, 'OK, I need to get a part time job.' ... And then even with that part-time job, it's not giving me enough income, so I have to look for another one.”

Myers and Merwin currently hold part-time jobs, and are also enrolled as full-time students. Myers holds a work study job where she may earn up to $1,000 a semester and Merwin receives between $220 to $260 a month as part of his benefits from serving in the National Guard.

But, they also have thousands of dollars in loans and say they cannot afford health insurance.

“Let's just put it this way. I have less than a third left of my money to pay for my groceries and living expenses,” Myers said.

Caldwell, a geographic information science and computer science double major at UNI, is married and has a 2-year old daughter. He relies on his book stipend to help pay for textbooks, but the stipend often arrives late – two weeks after he needed them for classes this semester. He has taken out student loans to buy books in time for class.

“I get kind of stingy with money during that time frame, but I guess I'm used to it by now,” Caldwell said.

Dwain Caldwell is raising a daughter with his wife while attending the University of Northern Iowa with G.I. Bill benefits. He works two part-time jobs to make ends meet.

Linh Ta/IowaWatch

Dwain Caldwell is raising a daughter with his wife while attending the University of Northern Iowa with G.I. Bill benefits. He works two part-time jobs to make ends meet.

His tuition money also has been delayed. During Caldwell’s first semester at UNI in summer 2011, he did not receive his tuition until three months after his tuition bill was due. A new student on campus, Caldwell was unaware of what to do and faced late fees and could not register for fall classes.

“It took them a long time to figure out that I was actually a student veteran in the (UNI) business office. So I'd have academic holds and stuff like that until the VA paid my tuition,” Caldwell said. “And the first time, you think, like, they understand that you're a student veteran and stuff, and then you're getting fees and late fees and holds. So it was kind of annoying to have to kind of dig in through that.”

Caldwell is a full-time student and holds two part-time jobs. He takes home $1,200 to $1,300 a month. His wife also works full-time. Caldwell and his wife work different shifts so they can care for their daughter, and Caldwell's mother and sister-in-law also assist with babysitting.

Each month, household bills range from $2,000 to $2,200.

Caldwell has $7,000 in student loans and $1,500 in debt with his credit card. This year’s housing allowance provides $900 a month.

G.I. BILL FUNDS BILLIONS IN BENEFITS 

Since 2009, the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill has paid $26.2 billion in benefits to 921,902 veterans and their educational institutions, Terry Jemmison, public affairs officer for the Department of Veteran Affairs in Washington, D.C., wrote in email.

According to the VA's website, various benefits are offered to students through the G.I. Bill, including tuition, a book stipend for up to $1,000 and a housing allowance based on where the student lives. The benefits assist veterans for up to 36 months of education at a college, university or training school, and living expenses.

There are two types of benefit claims: original and supplemental. Original claims are the applications the VA processes when a veteran applies for G.I. Bill benefits for the first time and supplemental claims cover veterans who are already in the system.

A press release Jemmison provided reported that the average wait time for supplement claims was six days in February, “cutting by more than half the processing time experienced during the spring enrollment period last year.” For original claims, the average wait time to assess veteran eligibility was 24 days, the VA release reported.

But while the VA is updating its G.I. Bill benefit processing system by doing things such as transforming from paper to electronic claims processing, some Iowa veterans still face unexpected complications when trying to receive their Post 9/11 G.I. Bill benefits, adding emotional stress to the fiscal difficulties.

THE VA RESPONDS

Curtis Coy, deputy under secretary for economic opportunity at the VA in Washington, said his understanding is that the biggest concern for many veterans who rely on G.I. Bill benefits is receiving housing benefits. Important to know, he said, is that they have to complete a month of school before getting those benefits. “Because we pay for what you've done, not prospectively.”

RELATED LINK: COY TESTIFIES IN 2011 BEFORE HOUSE COMMITTEE ON VETERANS AFFAIRS ABOUT EDUCATIONAL ISSUES

Coy said veterans in school may have to wait longer than 24 days or their first benefits because they do not submit to the VA and university or college they attend all of the information needed to verify their veteran status.

When it comes to filing supplemental claims, only 50 percent of the benefits are processed automatically. Also, some schools still submit paper applications. “One of the best friends a veteran can have on campus is the school certifying official,” Coy said about students waiting on supplemental claims.

Additionally, processing a claim takes time. “It doesn't mean that the veteran is going to get that check six days later,” Coy said, referring to the average processing time of six days for the first claims.

“What we're hearing is that the post 9/11 G.I. Bill is doing exactly what it intended to do,” Coy said.

G.I. BILL BENEFITS FROM THE UNIVERSITY SIDE 

At Iowa’s three state universities, school certifying officials are present to provide evidence to the VA that military students are enrolled at that university, the dates they're enrolled and the amount of credit hours they are taking.

The housing and book stipends are directly transferred to the student from the VA, and tuition is sent to the university, which finishes processing it for the student once the university receives it from the VA, UNI school certifying official Patricia Welter said.

None of Iowa’s state universities charge military students late fines due to tuition benefits processing late.

Welter said approximately 90 out of 215 veterans studying at UNI received G.I. Bill benefits during the fall 2012 semester. She said the approximate wait time for students to receive their G.I. Bill benefits like housing or tuition may range from two weeks to two months, with the median wait around a month.

Jathan Chicoine, the Iowa State University veterans affairs coordinator, said the processing time for G.I. Bill applicants at ISU is within 45 days, down from a high of 12 weeks in previous semesters.

Chicoine said veterans might have higher expectations for getting benefits earlier than they do because they get conflicting information.

“There seems to be a disparity between what veterans were told prior to entering the military, what they might experience while in, and what it’s actually like when arriving at a university,” Chicoine said. “For instance, many veterans have the understanding that their education costs will be taken care of, so if benefits don’t come in right away, it can create cash flow issues.”

Chicoine said ISU created a Veterans Community Gratitude Fund to assist veterans or family members experiencing economic hardship during their transition into higher education.

At the University of Iowa, Dennis Arps, school certifying official for the registrar, said the university is just short of 500 military students who receive G.I. Bill benefits. Around 60 or 70 may come in during a semester with issues regarding benefits.

He said it takes three to eight weeks to process benefits at the UI. “Nothing unusual, I've been doing this for 14 years, so it hasn't been worse than any other year,” Arps said.

Once the UI is notified about the tuition benefits for veterans, university officials try to process them within the day, he said,.

University of Northern Iowa students and veterans Ariela Myers and Dan Merwin speak about the tribulations they've faced with delayed processing times for G.I. Bill benefits. (Linh Ta/IowaWatch)

CONTACTING THE VA IS A TOUGH CHORE

As soon as issues with receiving G.I. Bill benefits occurred, Myers, Merwin and Caldwell all attempted to call the VA to try learning why their benefits weren't processing, and what they could do to try and relieve the situation. Reaching someone to talk to is no easy task.

“I've never actually been able to contact anyone from the VA directly except for the time they overpaid me. So the one time I've ever been able to get in contact with them is their debt collection, so I guess that's kind of the way they operate,” Caldwell said.

Coy said the best way to contact the VA is through the school certifying official, the VA website Facebook and the VA's toll free number.

But Patricia Welter, from UNI, said she’s noticed a difference at the VA since last fall in its willingness to answer questions.

“Before, I used to be able to call in and (the VA) would give me all kinds of information, so I could help the students out. But recently they've made a change,” Welter said. “They don't want to talk about amounts, and where they (students) went and how much went out to a specific account numbers and such. That's something they've kind of curtailed giving information to certifying officials.”

She added: “It's frustrating because I'm kind of the middle man with it. But if a student does have a question, I'll always try to put something together for them, for information and for a plan hopefully, and so they may know a time frame that they might be looking at something coming up.”

Coy responded: “That's curious. I'm glad that you mention that because I'm not aware of any sort of moratorium on giving any information out to anybody.”

ADDITIONAL ISSUE STUDENTS FACE

When the university isn’t in session, veterans face another challenge. The housing allowance only is  provided to students during the academic school year, meaning student do not receive those benefits during times like summer break and winter break.

“There's just no real way to live unless you get a full-time job,” Merwin said. “But to get a full-time job while you're going to school full time doesn't make sense. It won't work.”

The G.I. Bill also only funds credits taken toward a student's desired degree. Students cannot add a major unless the degrees are compatible.

PROPOSED SOLUTIONS TO THE PROBLEM

Welter was unsure of how well recent actions the VA is trying will work. “Because I've done this for so many years, I don't know if there's a lot that can change because it seems like it's been all the same situations that keep coming up. They're fine tuning it all the time.”

She encourages people to be patient.

Arps said he would like to see a more technically savvy or user-friendly certifying computer that makes it easier to retrieve military student information.

Myers and Merwin said easier contact with the VA would assist and inform them of the status of their benefits. So would hiring more staff people to assist with military benefits at the university level, they said, although Merwin emphasized that many of the problems he faces stem from the VA level, not from UNI.

Coy said the VA has made a number of advancements over the past few months to make processing time go more smoothly, including the ongoing transfer of paper-based processing to electronic based processing.

“This spring we think we've come a long way in resolving that. Do we want to get those processing times down lower? Yes. Are we working incredibly hard to do that? Yes. Have we had considerable success in the last number of months doing that? I would say yes. Are we 100 percent there? No, but we've come a long ways. We're not resting on our laurels, we're continuing to push hard.”

Myers, Merwin and Caldwell said they have noticed improvements recently, especially with the implementation of electronic processing at UNI.

And all three are thankful for the G.I. Bill benefits. “We're not complaining because you've given us a gift and we want more. We're not trying to be like the mouse asking for a cookie after you give it a glass of milk,” Merwin said.

“But,” Myers continued, “if you give us the glass of milk, can you just hand it to us and it will be there?”

RELATED STORY: Iowa’s Returning War Veterans Endure Long Waits for Benefits
This IowaWatch story appeared in The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, IA), The Courier (Waterloo, IA), Burlington Hawk Eye, Iowa City Press-Citizen, Quad-City Times, Sioux City Journal, Patch.com, KCRG-TV (Cedar Rapids, IA) and KWWL-TV (Waterloo).
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