By Martin Kidston
Unemployed veterans who qualify for a coveted federal program that covers the cost of gaining new job skills can now use the program's funding at Missoula and Bitterroot colleges.
With the help of Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the two-year schools and University of Montana affiliates were approved for the Veterans Retraining and Assistance Program on Tuesday, roughly one week after vets aired frustration over the schools' standing in the program.
"I'm glad we have this bureaucratic issue resolved," said UM President Royce Engstrom. "We want to do everything in our power to assist our veterans with their education and civilian lives."
Passed by Congress in 2011 under the Vow to Hire Heroes Act, the VRAP program provides unemployed vets up to 12 months of funding to pursue an associate degree or a training certificate from a community college.
Missoula College and Bitterroot College, however, were not listed by the Department of Education on the College Navigator website as acceptable VRAP schools.
While university officials had been working to bring the colleges into compliance, progress was frustratingly slow for a handful of qualified veterans wanting to return to school in search of new job skills.
"Eligible veterans who already are enrolled will be identified and their payments will be processed by the end of the week, including any retroactive payments," said Ron Muffick, director of student financial services in Montana's Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education.
UM officials on Tuesday credited Tester with helping get Missoula College into the program. The program was part of Tester's Vow to Hire Heroes Act, the only jobs bill to pass Congress in 2011.
He also is a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
"Veterans made tremendous sacrifices and earned their benefits and should not have to deal with unnecessary red tape," Tester said Tuesday. "Missoula and Bitterroot colleges will now be able to enroll and support veterans and make sure they get the education they need."
Dan Malessa, a Tester spokesman, said staff worked to retroactively pay vets the benefits they were entitled to receive months ago when they initially qualified for the program.
"(Tester) and his staff were able to quickly and efficiently help the UM schools because of his previous support for Montana State University's veterans programs," Malessa said. "After the paperwork was submitted, Jon helped the VA expedite the paperwork's approval."