By Emmanuel Touhey
The "Post-9/11 GI Bill" came into effect three years ago today. In those few short years since, the legislation has attracted hundreds of thousands of veterans, many of them returning from deployments overseas, including Iraq and Afghanistan.
As of July, the Department of Veterans Affairs has received more than 1.2 million applications and has paid more than $20 billion to more than 761,000 students.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill provides up to 36 months of benefits, including up to 100 percent payment of tuition and fees, a monthly housing stipend, an allowance for books and other supplies, a one-time relocation allowance and the option to transfer benefits to some family members. The VA has also partnered with many private schools to plug gaps in funding through its "Yellow Ribbon Program."
Virginia Sen. Jim Webb (D), a former secretary of the Navy who wrote and introduced the bill in 2007, said he is proud of what it had accomplished thus far.
"It's the best GI bill in history. I think we can say that without fear of contradiction."
But Webb cautioned, "We've had a few bumps here and there." Chief among them are concerns over abuses by some for-profit schools. In March, Webb introduced reform legislation requiring those institutions to meet the same accreditation standards as other schools receiving Title IV funding such as Pell Grants. The bill is now before the Veterans Affairs Committee. Webb hopes the measure will be approved before he leaves office in January.
Ramsey Sulayman, a legislative associate with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, urges veterans to "make sure you've done your homework" before settling on a particular school. "It's key to research where you're going to school and what's important to you," he said.
Webb also expressed some frustration over delays in the processing of education benefits.
"We've got a situation in the VA where the backlog in cases is very high. They need to move faster. There's an enormous backlog, for a variety of reasons. But they also need to certify the applicants," said Webb.
Valerie Verra is the Veterans Services Administrator at American University. She helps student veterans with their paperwork. With a new academic year just around the corner, she is anticipating more than 300 applications in the coming weeks. The sheer volume means delays are inevitable.
"The VA has also been impacted by the administrative demands of the new GI bill and the increase in student enrollments and resulting certification," said Verra.
In response, the VA has set up a system of callbacks that allows certifiers like Verra time to organize and gather the information she needs for each student
"Setting up realistic expectations of when they can expect their VA benefits to pay over is also key. First I give them a timeline based on what should happen, and then I tell them to expect delays."
But perhaps the biggest challenge facing student veterans today is the baggage from war and the culture shock they experience upon arriving on campus
Retired Army Brig. Gen. Stephen Xenakis, a psychiatrist who treats veterans says, "This is the biggest readjustment since the Vietnam War. What they learned in the military is not directly transferable. These guys are now older. A significant number of them are injured. They've all got something when it comes to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), brain injuries and muscular and skeletal aches and pains. It makes it much more difficult to learn and to get the skills to succeed."
Tommy Davis knows firsthand what Xenakis is talking about.
It's been 18 months since he returned home from Afghanistan and enrolled as a student of philosophy and Russian studies at George Washington University. But the experience stays with him every time he walks into a room.
"I won't sit with my back to a window. I like to have good visibility of a room," he said.
Stationed mostly in rural areas of Western Afghanistan, Davis spent his year-long deployment building schools, digging wells and settling water disputes between local farmers.
"IEDs were the biggest threat. Fortunately, we could depend on the incompetence of the bomb-makers and bomb-placers," recalled Davis.
Returning home was difficult. He had bouts of anxiety and took prescribed medication to deal with it. He didn't want to "come out" as a veteran. "I think a lot of it was I wanted to become a civilian again. I wanted to have a normal life, to blend in. My education was my rehabilitation back into civilian life," he said.
This reluctance to come forward is a challenge for universities across the country.
"They sit in the background and that's a problem," said Andrew Reef, president of AU Vets at American University. "You have to pull them out of the woodwork and let them know there are services to help them."
Andrew Sonn, assistant vice president for Student Academic and Support Services, echoed that sentiment. "We have a lot of great resources on campus. Take advantage of them. It's not a sign of weakness to ask for help."
Xenakis says "wrap-around services," especially counseling for the student veterans at schools and at the VA, are vital.
Marie Tillman, who heads the Pat Tillman Foundation -- named for her husband, who was killed in a controversial friendly fire incident in Afghanistan in 2004 -- has focused her efforts in the intervening years on helping to smooth that transition to civilian life through scholarships, and urging universities and colleges across the country to foster a more veteran-friendly environment.
While visiting Washington last week, she told The Hill "It's important to be able to help change the conversation on veterans in this country, that they be seen as assets rather than liabilities."
For veterans attending school for the first time this fall, her hope is for them "to be able to find a place that they can plug into. When you get out of the military there's a hole in your life. Community is so strong in the military."
Tillman also urged students not familiar with veterans to "try to understand. Have the conversation. Ask the questions. Be open and honest."
In a time of ballooning deficits, the question remains whether current funding for the GI bill can be sustained, particularly as Iraq and Afghanistan fade from the headlines.
Michael Dakduk, executive director of Student Veterans of America, said interest in funding "ebbs and flows with public awareness. The focus now must be to protect the Post-9/11 GI Bill for future generations of GIs,"
Webb underscored that commitment. "I think the body politic up here [on Capitol Hill] fully understands the value of the GI bill."
As his term in the Senate winds down, his advice to veterans is simple. "Use it. This is your opportunity to have a first-class education. Don't not use it."
Judging by the numbers, many veterans are heeding that advice.