After Brandon Prince was wounded in Iraq last year, damage to his left arm prevented him from continuing his military service or returning to construction work. But Prince, 24, saw last year’s expanded GI Bill — which grants tuition and living expenses for returning veterans — as the ticket to a secure job and income for his family: wife Alison, 22, and 9-month-old Elijah.
So earlier this year, Prince signed up for classes at Northwest Vista Community College in San Antonio starting this fall. It did not occur to him that he would not receive the promised benefits on time from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The government’s ability to make promises, however, is exceeding its competence in delivering benefits. Though the VA had more than a year to prepare to implement the complicated new law, it could not cope with the crush of 290,000 applications.
Calls to a VA hotline yielded frustrating taped messages warning of weeks of delay. Prince was among the vast majority of applicants who experienced holdups. He found himself with mounting bills, tuition unpaid and no sign of a VA check. In desperation, he maxed out his credit cards, borrowed from his in-laws and begged creditors for more time. Some other veterans even turned to homeless shelters and food banks.
Last Friday, after news reports and pressure from members of Congress and veterans organizations, the VA kicked into emergency mode. It processed almost 24,000 stopgap checks of $3,000 through online applications or in person at 57 VAregional offices. Prince jumped into his truck at 6 a.m. Friday and drove 200 miles to get his check at the VA office in Waco.
The stopgap measures are progress, but two key questions remain: How did the problem get to this point? And when will an orderly, fast processing system kick in?
It’s worth remembering that the expanded GI bill, enacted in May 2008, was supposed to show the nation’s gratitude to returning veterans, many of whom have served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and have been injured or suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Like the original GI Bill in 1944, which transformed the post-World War II economy, it is intended to help veterans earn degrees at virtually no cost to them. Eligibility is based on length of service after Sept. 10, 2001.
At the time the expansion was considered, we worried that it was too costly and could worsen the volunteer military’s already serious problem with retention. Those remain valid concerns. But the promise is now law, and there’s no excuse for leaving veterans in the lurch. Veterans’ organizations say they have pressed the VA for more than a year to make sure it was prepared. In congressional testimony, VA officials gave little hint of the looming problems.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki has acknowledged that veterans such as Prince had a right to complain, and he promised that the system would be automated by next year. The VA has hired more processors. But it will not be easy to overcome this rocky start. Given the VA’s previous promises, it deserves careful monitoring. Returning veterans, who’ve borne a disproportionate amount of sacrifice for the wars in Iran and Afghanistan, deserve better.