The GI Bill and other veterans’ benefits are important and invaluable ways to take care of the men and women who put their lives on the line for the safety and freedom of our nation — in theory. The original GI Bill was passed in 1944 as a way to help soldiers returning from war transition back into civilian life. It gave them a weekly income and a chance to reassimilate into society, as well as provided them with the opportunity to gain an education for a better future, rather than coming home from war with nowhere to go and being unable to find work, as many were following World War I.
Though the bill has been updated twice since then (in 1984 when it became the Montgomery GI Bill and in 2008 when it became the Post 9/11 GI Bill), the intent is still the same. But the problem is the execution. After having served six years in the Army and using my GI Bill benefits as I transitioned and watching many of my fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines do the same, I have rarely encountered someone who was able to go through the process without a hitch, myself included.
While my experience pales in comparison to many of the tales I’ve heard over the years, my story is not a unique one. When I was transitioning out of the Army, they provided classes on how to handle applying for the GI Bill, getting into college, etc. They warned us to apply for the GI Bill well ahead of time, since the paperwork takes a long time to process. I followed their instructions and applied for the GI Bill in the spring in order to start college in the fall. I made sure all the paperwork was properly filled out and submitted to the right places (you have to submit paperwork to both the VA and to your school). But when my classes started in late August of 2010, it still had not been processed.
It was about two months before I saw my first payment. Sure, they gave me back pay from the day I started class, but for some, that’s too little, too late. I was one of the fortunate ones who had a husband who was working the entire time, so we were able to pay our bills. Many transitioning soldiers, however, rely on that money to pay their rent and buy their groceries every month. So for them, a couple of months of waiting for pay can mean an eviction notice or some hefty credit card debt.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I’ve heard many stories just like mine, and others more harrowing. I have one friend who made it through two semesters of college while receiving his GI Bill benefits, only to stop receiving them for the next semester because the VA lost his paperwork and had no record that he was ever receiving benefits or that he was even eligible. I’ve known people who went back to working minimum-wage jobs (though there is certainly no shame in that) for a year while they established residency in a state so the GI Bill would cover them.
But to me, the most discouraging stories are those of the soldiers who are denied in-state tuition because they’ve been fighting in war zones instead of physically residing in that state. These soldiers, like many others, get a permanent change of station and move to, say, Ft. Bragg, N.C. and shortly thereafter, get deployed. They finish out their time in the military in a war zone, come back, outprocess and become civilians again. Then, when they apply to colleges in the state, they find out that, though their duty station has been in that state, they have no lease or bills or any way to prove they’ve been a resident of that state. So instead of being able to take advantage of the GI Bill benefits that they’ve rightfully earned, they are forced to pay out of pocket.
To me, that’s not the thanks our veterans deserve. Those men and women who have sacrificed their own freedoms and free time, and in many cases, their sanity, limbs and families, deserve much more. Even though I was one of the lucky ones who didn’t experience much of that myself, my husband and many of my dearest friends have sacrificed themselves for multiple deployments, and I know they deserve a quality education. It is, after all, the least we can do.
Cherise Fantus is the copy editor at Diverse: Issues In Higher Education. She and her husband are both proud veterans of the United States Army.
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