Bay Area veterans scrambling after GI Bill cuts

Aundray Rogers, an Army veteran and single father of three, worries that he and his children will be living on the street come September.

Rogers, one of several hundred thousand U.S. veterans using the Post-9/11 GI Bill to help pay for his education, will need to make some difficult decisions Monday, when changes to the law take effect.

“I personally think that I am going to be homeless,” Rogers said. “I will take any job to supplement the bills. We are the guinea pigs of this GI Bill.”

Rogers is upset about two changes to the Post-9/11 GI Bill, under which about 90 to 95 percent of the nation’s student veterans receive funding, according to benefits official Mario Mihelcic of the College of San Mateo. The changes were signed into law Jan. 4 as part of the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2010.

One change will eliminate break pay, which now provides benefits during holidays and portions of the month that students are not enrolled. The second will require veterans to take at least 12 academic units to receive 100 percent of their benefits. Up to now, veterans have received full benefits for taking at least seven units, noted Dustin Noll of the Peninsula Veterans’ Center.

“They got me; they played me,” Rogers said. “I went into the Army to get the funds for college, and now it isn’t there.”

Future funding under the GI Bill will depend upon how many units students take. Although veterans will still remain eligible for the same amount of total educational reimbursement, the pace of that cash flow could be significantly longer than the 36 months currently funded, Mihelcic said.

Jack Jacoby, president of the City College of San Francisco Veterans’ Alliance, said that will hurt many veterans.

“When payments are choppy, rent stays the same,” Jacoby said. “This is going to affect a lot of veterans that will go homeless or be evicted. This is a combined arms mission against veterans’ livelihood.”

Many veterans won’t realize how much this will affect them until they get their checks at the beginning of September — only to discover that they are much smaller than usual.

“The GI Bill was definitely better before these changes,” said Anthony Pertini, an Iraq veteran who is pursuing a nursing degree at the College of San Mateo.

“I put money into it and did what I had to do for my country, and now they are taking that money away from us,” Pertini said. “They should grandfather the people that were already in the system. When you get out, you rely on a certain amount of money.”

Veteran Barry Jointer, who attends the College of San Mateo and is a student trustee on the district board, said he, too, joined the military because he knew he could use the GI Bill toward his education. Now, he and his sister — also a veteran — must seek a cheaper living situation.

“I have not met one veteran that is happy about the changes,” he said. “Every vet that’s going to school and using the GI Bill doesn’t know what they are going to do.”

Changes not all negative for servicemen

Although many veterans are upset by alterations to the Post-9/11 GI Bill, veteran service organization officials say there are positive changes as well.

The Post-9/11 Veterans Education Assistance Improvement Act will allow 40,000 National Guard members to become eligible for the GI bill starting Monday, according to Robert Madden of the American Legion in Washington, D.C.

“This is a huge triumph,” Madden said. “The bill could have been improved, but this is what passed and we will work with both sides to improve veterans’ education.”

Veterans who were eligible for benefits under Chapter 31, which provides vocational rehab to those with service-connected disabilities, will now be able to get the GI Bill’s housing allowance and their normal subsistence allowance. Previously, they had to choose one or the other.

“The subsistence allowance can be half of the housing allowance,” said John Wilson, assistant legislative director for Disabled American Veterans. “It’s hard to get the best out of the rehab program when you are focused on how to pay for your housing.”

The idea behind the original GI Bill was any veteran who served at least three years of military service could go to school for free. Tom Tarantino of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America said the new reforms will help extend that goal to all forms of education. Starting Oct. 1, students will be able to use GI Bill benefits for non-college degree programs.

“Our members have important, advanced technical skills,” Tarantino said. “They need to get their EMT certificate, or welding certification or other training that matches their military skills. They should be able to get whatever education they want to.

“Overall,” he added, “the changes are a good thing.”

Vet services expo

VetSTRONG, an independent support group designed to connect Bay Area students with veterans’ services, is partnering with several other groups to host a Young Veteran Service Expo on Aug. 26.

When: 4 to 7 p.m. Aug. 26
Where: City College of San Francisco, Multi-Use Building (MUB) 140, 50 Phelan Ave., San Francisco
What: Health, education, finance, jobs and pets service providers

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