The U.S. government failed to send promised college tuition checks to tens of thousands of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars before they returned to school this fall, even after being warned that it was inadequately staffed for the job.
The Veterans Affairs Department blamed a backlog of claims filed for GI Bill education benefits that has left veterans who counted on the money for tuition and books scrambling to make ends meet.
Veterans like American University student John Kamin, who received a letter Wednesday from the Army. He was hoping it contained news that his overdue GI Bill college tuition money would soon arrive. Instead, the Iraq war veteran was informed that he may be called back into active duty.
"It felt like salt in the wound," said the 24-year-old from New York City. He is depleting his savings account and borrowing money from his parents to make up for thousands of dollars the government promised him to complete his political science degree.
"That was really disheartening," Mr. Kamin said.
He isn't alone.
Out of more than 277,000 veterans who have filed for the college tuition benefits this semester, more than 200,000 claims have been processed and approved, but fewer than 11 percent of the veterans have received the funding, according to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).
The group says it has been contacted by thousands of veterans who have not received their benefits and that they are forced to take out loans or pay the money out of their pockets.
"This is absolutely unacceptable," the group said. "The men and women who so courageously served our country in Iraq and Afghanistan deserve better."
A VA spokeswoman did not return a call for comment, but in a statement the agency said employees are working overtime to deliver the checks and that retired claims processors have been rehired.
"Our top priority is providing our students and schools with accurate and timely benefit payments so veterans can focus all of their energy on studies," said Patrick W. Dunne, VA undersecretary.
During testimony March 12 before the House Appropriations subcommittee on military construction, veterans affairs and related agencies, the agency's inspector general warned that the agency didn't have enough manpower to launch the new GI Bill.
"Successful implementation remains a difficult and risky challenge" because of staffing and software needs, the IG said. "Inadequate staffing can potentially delay claims processing."
Patrick Campbell, chief legislative counsel for the IAVA, said the delays "are not acceptable."
"Not knowing when they will get the money is what's worse for veterans, because they are going to have to plan for the worst," Mr. Campbell said. "People who are paying out of pocket right now are worried about how they are going to pay the rent at the end of the month.
"And then there is the snowball effect. One student said he paid out of pocket for tuition, but if the money doesn't come in time he can't register for classes next term. This will continue to snowball till the checks get out the door.
"This is something that should not and cannot be repeated in the future," Mr. Campbell said.
The agency said it has issued 61,000 payments totaling $50 million to students. Mr. Campbell said it will be the end of October or early November before other veterans can expect to receive payments.
Brian LaGuardia, a 35-year-old graduate student of international affairs at New York University who served as an Army infantry staff sergeant in Iraq, also had to borrow money to make up for the $6,000 he was expecting to receive from the GI Bill to offset his tuition and an additional $1,000 for books - the same amount of money that is expected by Mr. Kamin.
"I'm not complaining about the GI Bill, but the VA does risk losing the confidence of its soldiers," Mr. LaGuardia said. "It's frustrating not to have the money you are counting on.
"It's just not acceptable, and I think this is a little unreasonable for those who served their country."
Mr. Kamin, meanwhile, said he will deal with the situation as best he can until the money arrives for his education or he is recalled to active duty.
"The proudest thing I ever did was to serve in the Army, and should I get called to active duty, I'll be more than happy to serve again," Mr. Kamin said.
The GI Bill enacted after Sept. 11 offers educational assistance to those who have served in the military since the terrorist attacks. It updates legislation originally passed in 1944 and went into effect Aug. 1.
The late-payments episode is the latest in a string of embarrassing cases of VA failures for the nation's veterans.
Earlier this year, it was discovered that three VA medical centers failed to properly sterilize endoscopes, exposing 10,000 patients to infections including the HIV virus.
Last month, the agency sent letters to 600 veterans erroneously telling them they had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease.
Last year, the VA was embroiled in numerous scandals involving tests and medical experiments on veterans in which officials failed to follow certain standards.