Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Tuesday, January 23, 2018

AU vets waiting for GI Bill funds

Even though the fall semester is nearly halfway done, thousands of student veterans are waiting to receive their financial support from the Post-9/11 GI Bill and the Yellow Ribbon Program. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is backlogged with requests from veterans seeking to enroll in the two programs, according to AU veterans and the Financial Aid Office.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill took effect Aug. 1 and pays a qualifying veteran’s tuition at the tuition rate of the most expensive in-state university where the veteran lives. The Yellow Ribbon Program allows a participating university to pay up to half of a veteran’s tuition. The VA then matches the university’s contribution.

AU joined the Yellow Ribbon Program this fall, agreeing to pay over $6,000 each to four undergraduate veterans during the 2009-2010 school year. The VA matches AU’s contribution, bringing the tuition aid the four undergraduates receive to about $13,000. The university also supports four law school students and eight graduate students.

Under the two programs, the VA also pays veterans’ living expenses and a stipend for books. But because this year is the programs’ first and nearly 460,000 veterans are expected to receive benefits this year, according to the VA, the department is backlogged. As of Oct. 1, only 3,000 veterans’ GI Bill payments have been processed, according to the VA Web site.

“All of a sudden, the VA just got slammed with this initiative saying we’re doing this for vets so get on it now,” said Adam L’episcopo, a junior in the School of International Service who served two tours in Iraq with the U.S. Army. “That, in addition to the number of claims going out, they’re just jammed. And they’re backlogged months, several months. I don’t expect all the guys in my organization, at least at AU, to get paid until December at the latest.”

L’episcopo, the president of AU Vets, said he knew one veteran who received the money allotted for living expenses from the VA.

While the VA attempts to catch up with the number of applications, AU is supplying students with the half of the $13,000 the VA agreed to provide.

“The Financial Aid Office works collaboratively with the Registrar and Student Accounts office to insure that our Veterans are not adversely affected by the VA backlog,” said Financial Aid Director Brian Lee Sang in an e-mail.

The university expects to be reimbursed by the VA, he said.

The Yellow Ribbon ordeal began when the online application was made available at 12 p.m. on a day in mid-July. AU is funding four veterans out of the university’s 60 or so veterans, according to L’episcopo’s estimates. The four were chosen on a first-come, first-serve basis.

L’episcopo sent out e-mails to his veterans’ listserv saying, “In five minutes everybody should be applying for this.”

He counted down the minutes until the application was available, hitting the refresh button over and over again. The application finally popped up. L’episcopo scrolled down the page, filled out the application and hit submit. It was

12:01 p.m. when he finished. And he is now one of the four supported by the program.

“I wish I could find out who was the first, the second, the third, just because I was curious,” L’episcopo said, “because I was on that, going as fast as I possibly could. See that’s the thing. It’s $13,000 and it’s based on how fast someone can type? That’s insane.”

Even though he disagrees with the first-come, first-served method of selection, he said he would not recommend a different method that chose veterans based on time of service.

“You can’t really compare the sacrifice, but you shouldn’t need to, because it’s not those individual soldiers, they weren’t the ones who chose that,” he said. “The service alone should be enough.”

L’episcopo applied for the GI Bill on May 5, but the VA did not start processing his application until Sept. 2. After that, the VA sends a certification to AU, and then AU sends a proof of enrollment to the VA. Once the application is processed, it will take a few weeks for the application to be finalized.

“So I’m assuming that I’ll get [the money] November to December,” L’episcopo said.

He shares a house with six veterans in Tenleytown and all of them are waiting on money from the new GI Bill.

“If it starts getting to October, November and we still haven’t received the money ... I have no idea what we’ll do,” he said.

Before AU joined the Yellow Ribbon Program, some veterans talked about dropping out or transferring because they could not afford to continue attending AU, L’episcopo said.

While the GI Bill and the Yellow Ribbon Program are both a big help in paying for tuition, every veteran needs the equal financial support, he said.

“That’s not just my opinion, that’s the majority opinion, at least for the people in my group,” L’episcopo said. “Mostly for the fact that it’s a military mindset: that it’s not only you; it’s you and the guy next to you. That’s what matters.”

What a school offers reflects on how it views service to the country, he said.

The Undergraduate Senate passed a bill in April encouraging the university to join the Yellow Ribbon Program.

The best solution to the Yellow Ribbon and GI Bill dilemma is to increase the number of veterans in the program and to increase the amount of money offered to the veterans, he said.

“The problem is I knew more than four undergrads who were veterans on campus, and so, I mean, how can I accept this when my buddy over here is getting nothing,” L’episcopo said.

You can reach this staff writer at landerson@theeagleonline.com.


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