Cuesta student among veterans awaiting GI Bill funds

For the past couple of months, James Foote’s part-time job helped him pay for college expenses as he waited for money promised to him from the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

The delay has been longer than expected for him and thousands of other student veterans, forcing them to figure out how to pay for housing, tuition, books and other expenses on their own.

“Luckily I tried to keep money in the bank and got a part-time job,” said Foote, who works about 20 to 30 hours a week for the Cuesta College Police Department.

Only recently did he receive his first government check.

The new Post-9/11 GI Bill, which took effect Aug. 1, awards benefits for certain veterans and reservists who have served a minimum of 90 days of active duty on or after Sept. 11, 2001, including up to full tuition reimbursement and $1,000 a year for books and supplies, depending on years of service.

For thousands of student veterans around the country hoping to take advantage of the improved benefits under the new bill, money has been tight. Some have been forced to take out student loans or use credit cards to pay for books and tuition.

Foote started school in 2006 and joined the Marines after one semester. He returned from deployment about a year ago. He had some money in the bank, but not enough to cover expenses for his first semester back at Cuesta.

Cuesta has processed more than 50 student veteran applications, said Karen Andrews, special programs coordinator for the campus’s Veterans Affairs Office.

While that may not seem high, Andrews said there is an overwhelming number of applications for the benefits when taking into account the applications from all colleges and universities.

To make up for the slow turnaround of benefit checks, the federal Department of Veterans Affairs is offering veterans advances of up to $3,000. Many of those checks are handwritten and could pose concerns of fraud, according to the Web site of Veterans Affairs. Banks are being asked to call a hotline to verify validity of a check.

Foote applied for that money and received a check in the mail within five days. That money is deducted from future stipend payments, he said.

“This is just how the process is going,” Andrews said. “It really isn’t the VA itself. … They’re just so impacted.”

Going to a Veterans Affairs benefits office in person is difficult because the nearest offices are in San Diego, Los Angeles and Oakland, Andrews said. And benefits-processing centers have automated answering services, making it difficult to get status updates.

A call to the Los Angeles Regional Office on Friday was received by an automated answering system that said the department has been receiving an unprecedented number of calls and that veterans who have applied for benefits should wait six weeks before checking the status of their claim.

“It was getting to where the advance payment kinda saved me,” Foote said. “If that didn’t come out then I’d be hurting pretty bad.” He returned to Cuesta in January.

Some students have not yet applied for the emergency funding, which they can do online or in person. Josh Shepherd, 25, president of the Associated Students of Cuesta College and a six-year U.S. Navy veteran, has not yet received benefits.

“It’s down to the line. … I’ve maxed out (my) credit card,” he said. Fortunately, he said, he receives a stipend for attending trustee meetings as a student representative.