Watchdog Tip of the Day: How to get veterans benefits

Are you having trouble getting your veterans benefits. The Dallas Morning News Watchdog columnist Dave Lieber shares a shortcut with you to get it done. In our Watchdog Video Tip of the Day, we try to solve problems in under a minute.
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Angry U.S. military veterans wait months for promised GI Bill education benefits

Shaylynn Lynch was an aspiring actress in high school, but when she didn’t get any college scholarships for drama in 2004, she decided to follow a family tradition and serve her country.

She joined the Navy and made a promise to herself that she would go to college later — at the government’s expense under the GI Bill.

The petty officer third class served four years, including more than a year in combat, as an aviation electronics specialist on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf.

After she returned to civilian life last summer, she signed up for the new Post-9-11 GI Bill and kept her promise, studying drama and film at the University of North Texas. But money from the government to pay for tuition, books and fees and her housing allowance didn’t come for three months.

She finally received a check for some of it in November but was still owed thousands more. The 23-year-old veteran fell behind in her bills and had to take out loans to cover her expenses.

She called the Department of Veterans Affairs, she estimates, more than 30 times.

“There were no answers for months at a time,” she said. “I asked to speak to someone higher up, and they said no. I wanted a timeline, but I wasn’t getting any answers other than, ‘We’re working on it.'”

The VA was flooded with benefits requests last year when the new GI Bill went into effect in August. It couldn’t keep up.

Across the nation, stories are told of veterans evicted because they couldn’t pay rent and others who dropped out of college while waiting for checks.

Lynch is one of tens of thousands of veterans waiting for benefits due them.

While VA officials say they’re working on the backlog, no one disagrees that thousands have been left — borrowing a phrase from Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki — worrying about their finances when they should have been focused on their schoolwork.

When the program went into effect, the government processed 2,000 claims a day. Now, after hiring extra workers, the VA says it can handle 7,000 a day.

Promises made were long delays.

Promises made were long delayed by the VA.

“Our primary mission at the VA is to be an advocate for veterans,” VA spokesman Drew Brookie said. “And we fully share concerns about timeliness of benefits claims processing. No one should have an adversarial relationship with the VA.”

Veterans groups say many claims are processed by hand. The new budget proposed by President Barack Obama this week includes $44 million to complete an automated system by December for processing claims.

To help students, the VA also made advance emergency payments of up to $3,000 to claimants who desperately needed money. The VA announced last month that it has begun applying the advanced payments to student accounts.

In a noteworthy event, the VA also announced that it has closed its call centers on Thursdays and Fridays so workers can process more claims instead of handling phone calls. That means VA call centers are only open three days a week.

The VA beefed up its work force, too. In the past year, 760 people were hired and overtime was “maximized,” the VA said.

How did this happen?

The VA was forced to set up the program much quicker than usual, said Skip Kempnich, a board member for the National Association of Veterans’ Program Administrators. Confusion abounded because the VA’s instructions to college administrators were vague and kept changing, said Kempnich, who works at the University of Iowa.

Compounding the problem, the VA’s campus liaisons were called back in from the field to process claims, so campus administrators had as much difficulty as Lynch did trying to find out what was happening.

Tuition money is sent directly to schools, with the other benefits going to students. At UNT, the registrar’s office said students such as Lynch were not penalized. Officials knew the money was coming and made loans available to hold students over.

After her discharge, Lynch turned down lucrative electronics jobs to pursue her dream. She hopes to become a film director.

This week, she went to her mailbox and found a long-awaited check from the VA. But Lynch says she’s not sure whether everything has been paid. The form letter did not include a breakdown of the various benefits and their amounts.

When I pointed this out to Brookie, the VA spokesman, he agreed to fetch Lynch’s records and provide her with a breakdown.

The experience frustrates her, she said. “I don’t like asking for handouts, but this was something that was promised to me.”

Her grandfather, Air Force veteran Chuck Kedy, who first notified Watchdog Nation about the problem, said, “It really upsets me when they don’t take care of the kids when they serve their country.”

Final note: A veteran friend of mine, Anthony Martinez, a talented writer and photographer, wrote a terrific blog post recently on how to deal with the VA. And thank you Anthony for your great note: “The copy of Watchdog Nation you signed for me last year helped me get results (and write those posts). Thanks.” (That’s what Watchdog Nation wants to do!) Read Anthony’s great ideas here.


Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new 2010 edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is out. Revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber

When Navy vet Lynch finally received a months-late payment from the VA, the accompanying letter did not provide her with a breakdown of any type.

When Navy vet Lynch finally received a months-late payment from the VA, the accompanying letter did not provide her with a breakdown of any type.