If you’re old enough, you remember the television commercials that encouraged young people to enlist in the military as a way to help pay for college through the G.I. Bill. A promise was made by the federal government to veterans who completed their terms of enlistment, thus earning their benefits.
Lately, the federal government has been failing to fulfill that promise.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is suffering from a series of information technology glitches that has caused G.I. Bill benefit payments covering education and housing to be delayed or — in the case of Shelley Roundtree — to never be delivered, NBCNews.com reported on Veterans Day.
Roundtree departed the U.S. Army in 2013 after a combat tour in Afghanistan. He enrolled in college with tuition and housing benefits he’d earned under the G.I. Bill. Roundtree, 29, began studying marketing at Berkeley College in Midtown Manhattan. He’s close to graduating, but now “I’m about to lose everything that I own and become homeless. I don’t want to be that veteran on the street begging for change because I haven’t received what I was promised.”
Without the G.I. Bill’s housing stipend, Roundtree was kicked out of his apartment and is now living on his sister’s couch, miles from school, where he feels like a burden on his family. All of his belongings are now in a storage container which he can no longer afford, and are in danger of being auctioned off by the storage facility.
Roundtree said he is forced to choose between spending money on public transportation to get to his marketing classes or buying food. At the end of the day, he said he often makes himself go to sleep hungry.
The Forever G.I. Bill, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump in 2017, greatly expanded benefits for veterans and their families, but it did not upgrade the VA’s technical capabilities to account for those changes.
This summer, issues with the VA’s antiquated computer system meant that it waited until July 16 to tell schools to begin enrolling students, according to veteran advocacy groups. Many colleges and universities waited, however, because the VA told them that they would need to re-enter their student veterans’ certifying information either way.
While it is unclear how many GI Bill recipients were affected by the delays, as of Nov. 8, more than 82,000 were still waiting for their housing payments with only weeks remaining in the school semester, according to the VA. Hundreds of thousands are believed to have been affected.
“This is — to be kind — a train wreck,” said U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. “It’s really frustrating the amount of money that Congress has appropriated for veterans, and this is the way VA has rolled it out. This discussion started over a year ago.”
Roe’s office recently visited the VA’s regional processing office in Muskogee, Okla., along with Democratic and Senate committee staffers and Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla.
In a Nov. 5 letter to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie, Roe said that employees at the processing center told the group that IT systems at the office froze and crashed so often that tasks that once took five minutes now required 45 minutes. Computers often suffered a “blue screen of death,” which required restarting machines, and “managers had to write off 16,890 man hours due to system crashes or latency issues.”
“While Committee staff never witnessed a ‘blue screen of death,’ ” the letter said, “they did witness the system crash no fewer than five times in a 10 minute period.”
Those of us who aren’t dependent on benefits from the VA could make the usual wisecracks about government bureaucracy, or think of our own experiences with the “blue screen of death” on our home or work computers. We have that luxury.
But an underfunded, understaffed Veterans Administration, with its antiquated computer system, is not fulfilling its duty to veterans such as Shelley Roundtree, who was promised money to help pay for college if he enlisted.
Roundtree, and thousands of young men and women like him, have been deployed to combat zones in service to this nation. Even those who weren’t sent to Afghanistan or Iraq held up their end of the bargain.
A promise was made. The VA, Congress and the White House owe it to our veterans to make every effort to ensure that the promise is kept.