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Veterans empty-handed: VA still to blame

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Pictured above of Jacobi Montgomery by Audris Ponce

HOUSTON—A year since its introduction, the Post 9/11 GI Bill continues to leave a trail of frustrated veterans nationwide. Despite the promise of future benefits, which were made prior to enlistment, many veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces have yet to receive their corresponding rewards.

Jacobí Montgomery, 28, is an Iraq War veteran from Beaumont whose story, according to Lynda Greene, community director at De George at Union Station in Downtown Houston, is “pretty standard.”

Montgomery served in Iraq from 2006 to 2007 as an Army Specialist; he was discharged in January 2009. He resigned because he wanted to “do something bigger and better” with his life and enrolled in a massage therapy school back home.

But, when the time came to pay for tuition, his GI Bill benefits and the Veterans Affairs (VA) were nowhere to be found. “We’re backed up. We’ll get to it,” he says about its response. “We have a lot of people. We’ll get to you when we get to you.”

The classes he took were part of a six-month course, and in the middle of the semester, the VA said the processing of his claim would take six more months. Due to lack of payments, Montgomery was dropped from his classes with about one month before completion.

“It shouldn’t have taken that long,” Montgomery said. “I felt extremely disappointed.”

Deprived of GI Bill benefits, housing, and even food stamps, Montgomery found himself homeless and on the streets a mere six months after serving his country in Iraq.

“Sometimes I feel like the battle I had with my family (who blamed him for being homeless) and the military was worse than Iraq,” he said from a statement he shared with the Houston Chronicle. “You come home thinking you’ll be welcomed with open arms and you get shunned… it’s like a kick in the face.”

Individual GI Bill payments do not meet the financial needs of a higher education due to the VA’s failure to fix its current processing system. The lack of funds available as tuition deadlines approach result in many newly-enrolled students having to take out significant loans or opt out of college altogether.

According to Veterans Benefits Administration’s (VBA’s) Monday Morning Reports, as of January 3rd of this year 13,373 Post 9/11 GI Bill claims remain unprocessed.

The VA’s most recent response to the problem was distributing $3,000 “emergency” GI Bill checks to those with missing funds. However, veterans found themselves contacted quickly by VA officials demanding to be repaid the “loans” they were given.

Jim Strickland, an active veteran advocate, describes the VA as a “badly broken machine.” Strickland recalls that lives are virtually “destroyed” in some cases.

“I know of veteran students who have suffered repossessed vehicles, eviction from housing, marital problems including divorce, late child support payments and more,” he said. “Our society is not understanding or forgiving… (And) the VA rarely tries to explain itself. It just does what it does and we deal with it.”

Montgomery is part of the lucky few, as he now has a job teaching computer classes and basic computing skills for other veterans at the VETS Service Center and the De George.

“I plan on going back to school,” he says, “but right now I want to help other veterans while I also recuperate myself.”

Despite the growing number of backlog cases the VA is struggling to process, recent suggestions to improve the system by the Dole-Shalala Commission (in charge of overseeing the welfare of wounded and incoming veterans) were ignored.

Attempts to communicate with the VA department have continuously gone unanswered.

While the war is over for the soldiers who return from service, no one knows when their battles will end here at home.

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