Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Different View

I think I have a little different view than some of the other milbloggers about the VA's attempts to make everything right on the Post 9/11 GI Bill. And I think that view just may be connected to the fact that I'm still on active duty, and have within the last few months tried to get dollars back from Uncle Sam that I was owed.

And that is, man, at least the VA seems to be /trying/.

Sure, it is far, far from perfect. And yes, they did owe the veterans those payments already, and it has been a magical clusterfuck to rival all clusterfucks.

But how many times have you had to deal with some brilliant but poorly detailed plan in the Army? Something grandiose got thought up (usually by officers) and it was always a great plan, but the devil was always in the details, because officers always forgot about things like how many people they had available and how much equipment there was and gee golly whiz, soldiers need sleep too.

That's about how I feel about this VA situation. Except it's SUCH a brilliant plan that as long as they can roll with the FRAGOs, I'm thinking it's still good news.

I was a fan of the "Drive to your VARO and get a check" answer, but maybe that's because I'm used to being posted at lonely outstations and having long drives to get anywhere. For example, now, if I want to go see the company area, it's an hour-and-a-half drive. Three hours of driving doesn't seem too much for me. I am carefully avoiding stating how many miles that could entail, lest any police be licking their chops for my over-the-speed-limit ass. Anyway, I recognize it's not for everyone.

And you know what? So does the VA, with remarkable speed. They came up with a kludge, a quick fix, a way to duct tape it together so it will work. That's what they did the first time with the concept of checks at all, and that's what they're doing now.

So now, thanks to the VA (Which I've had to compliment twice in one week, what's with that?) you can now get your emergency checks arranged for online, with a six day turnaround time from the moment you sit down at your computer and make with the clicky clicky to the time the check is in your happy happy hands.

This is really good news and once again yet more evidence that the VA is slowly creaking its way towards the 21st century (and who knows, maybe I can hope for a delivery of automated 9/11 GI Bill processing sooner than Dec 2010?)

Also, fellow milbloggers: if the IVAW chick is more hopeful about government implementation of taking care of veterans than you? You're wrong.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Shinseki, I forgive you for the Beret: VA to issue Emergency Checks to Veteran Students

Many of you know I've had a love-hate sort of feeling towards now-VA Secretary Shinseki, dating back almost ten years. For those of you who were in the military around then, you will instantly understand why: Shinseki, for all of his other sterling qualities, gave us the beret. Hot in summer, cold in winter, it had absolutely no redeeming qualities besides doing away with the garrison cap.

However, there's been a lot of faith there, given his courageous stand against Bush on other issues.

That faith has now been justified to such an extent that I think it has more than made up for any petty grievances I might have had over horrible uniform items. (And really, with the ACU so much a better and more convenient target, it was about time)

General Shinseki (Okay, okay, Secretary Shinseki) has ordered the VA to release emergency checks to veteran students who are having rough financial times staying in college with the late Post 9/11 GI Bill payments. This is incredibly amazing, especially given the stories of people like Suspect who have been dropping out of school because of the problems with the GI bill. I am really, really glad that the VA is listening to the veterans it serves, and also applaud the veteran's organizations (not just IVAW but IAVA and VoteVets and AWV and SWAN and the American Legion and the VFW and any I'm forgetting) for staying on top of them and reminding them of the real costs of the delays.

However no amount of voices will avail anything if people aren't listening, and I don't want to take any of the credit away from the VA for actually doing so. First listening to the veteran bloggers and organizations at Thursday's roundtable and now this: I have to say I'm sporting a big warm fuzzy for the VA at the moment.

The VA also understands that not everyone can get to a VARO (VA Regional Office) quickly, which is why they're sending representatives to schools with large veterans populations, so that they can get the help desperately needed where it is needed the most. Veterans, help is on the way. Starting Oct 2. Stick it out until then, and you'll be able to make it. Things are going to be okay.

Now, for how you can actually get this:

Show up Friday, Oct 2, at your nearest VA regional office
a photo ID
a course schedule

Personally, I'd take along a DD214 as well, but that's just me. The only two things the VA are requiring are the above.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

VA Bloggers Round Table On Post 9/11 GI Bill

First, I'd like to say that I really appreciate the efforts of Brandon Friedman, Director of New Media over at the VA, for getting the VA to acknowledge the ways that people receive media, and that so often it is via the internet rather than print newspapers. There was a really excellent Blogger's Roundtable for military veteran bloggers and representatives of veterans service organizations via the phone, Assistant Secretary Tammy Duckworth and VA Deputy Director of Education Services Lynn Nelson taking the time to discuss the delay in GI bill payments with veteran bloggers and answer their questions. I really appreciate this-I think it's much more likely that the information in its unabridged form will make it to veterans than when it hits a newspaper and has to conform to space restrictions. I especially appreciate it as Duckworth was traveling on behalf of the VA and still made time for us and our concerns.

Veteran's benefits is a big piece for me, it's the IVAW mission that I think I do probably the most work on, because it's one of the most important: making sure our returning veterans are taken care of fully. So getting the chance to participate in this and help our members and other veterans and get answers was very important.

I think one of the most valuable things that came out of this was a little more clarification on where the problems are. Secretary Duckworth said that while 277,403 veterans have submitted for eligibility determination, (and that they've processed 205,704 of those) they cannot send checks to those people. They have to wait for the schools to send enrollment certifications, and a lot of the schools are apparently waiting until the ad-drop period to do this. They have received 27,735 enrollment certifications, and of those, they've processed and sent out 24,186.

So this is where (by my math) 71,699 students were as of Thursday. Much as I am quick to blame the VA usually, to be fair, this means the bulk of the problem is quite possibly indeed in the schools and with communication. Using the numbers Secretary Duckworth gave, that's (my math) 249,668 veterans whose schools have not sent enrollment certifications, and (my math) 177,969 veterans who have gone as far as they can in the VA system without the enrollment certification and are now waiting on the schools. Granted, it's hard to tell how many of those are actually trying to go to school this fall. Some may have simply wanted to create eligibility for later. But that is overwhelmingly the largest number of screwed veterans in this situation, and it seems to be coming from bad communication and the schools.

Some possibilities I'm thinking:
schools are, as Duckworth says, not sending until after ad-drop period
schools and students are not aware that they in fact do need to send it for payment to start
schools are not aware where specifically to direct it to

They do seem to be working on this: spring survival guides were mentioned to improve the communication issue and apparently more reaching out to the schools is going on to ask them to cut their veteran students a little slack.

Duckworth also assured us that Shinseki is really aware of this and receiving daily reports.

Terry Howell
, from asked a really important clarification question: whether or not certifying officials at the schools need to wait for that eligibility determination to certify that the veterans were taking classes at their schools. This is really important, and I'm glad he asked that. What Ms. Nelson told our fellow vets is that they do not. So what this means for you, is that as /soon/ as you are in the school system as attending for that term, you can start bugging the bursar/registrar to get them to send the information to the VA, /even/ if you're still waiting for your eligibility letter. This means you can do them simultaneously, and cut down your wait time massively. Some colleges, especially those dealing with Yellow Ribbon Programs, will need the eligibility letter, but if the GI bill covers your whole tuition, do it now. Tomorrow, in fact. If you are enrolled in school and are still waiting, you should go to your school tomorrow and ask what the status of the certification of enrollment is.

The mention again was made: they pay you housing after the fact, rather than before. I think this is a really lousy way to go, personally: rent is due before you start living there, not the month after. I understand that the VA is most likely trying to protect itself from fraudulent claims, but we are talking about veterans who served honorably. Could we not assume as a default that these guys are more likely to be honest, and take it back afterwards if it's found out they didn't deserve it? VA did accept fault, however, on the call, for failing to communicate to students that this would be happening, for which I applaud them.

What I also took from this call is that VA is working around the clock in order to get this done-VA employees working massive overtime on weekends, etc. They may not have anticipated the full demand, but they're doing a lot now.

Also, I know a lot of you guys have been talking about how when you call in, the VA has no clue where your stuff is at. I did ask about this, about what sort of tracking system they have and why everyone is getting such bad information. This is because, according to Secretary Duckworth and Ms. Nelson, the status of your claim is not visible until the authorization has been signed and the payment has gone out. Before then, they are not able to track at all where your claim is at. That is apparently not going to change for a while, but for next year, they'll have improvements-they estimate December of 2010 for a fully automated system that will fix a lot of these problems (as well as potentially have your results in an amazing ten days)

More confirmation for those of you who were a little unsure: they reaffirmed that if you completely use your MGIB, all 36 months, that you're still eligible for 12 months of the Post 9/11 GI Bill.

One thing the VA is doing well: they pointed out that if they owe you money, if you're owed back pay by the time the VA processes the claim, you will get it right away, you don't have to wait until the first. The payment will go out the day it's finished being processed.

Richard Smith of VoteVets made a really important point I think that applies for all of us pressing the VA on this. He mentioned some details of his own situation, and they offered him a personal followup. However, he pointed out that it wasn't for himself that he was asking, but for the other veterans. A solution that helped only him would not be a solution in his eyes. We're not out for ourselves. We're out for our brothers.

By the time of this writing, there has in fact been action on the VA, but it is so outstanding that it deserves its own separate post. However, this call in and of itself was pretty amazing, and I applaud it.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

On My Shit List (edited): Places that don't provide assistance to AE or AP addresses

Right now, top on my shit list is Ebay. They just did a new "improvement" that requires any address entered into their system to choose their state from a pull-down tab. Great, fine, it spares all those idiots who can't be bothered to type two letters into a state field. Great, right? Not so much. Because nowhere under United States is there "AE or AP, Armed Forces European/Armed Forces Pacific" or any variant thereof.
And unlike many places that have the pulldown tab and a manual entry tab, Ebay has been idiotic enough to eliminate the manual entry completely

After spending a lot of time on the phone arguing with the helpdesk person from India that Armed Forces Europe existed as a state, that the US Postal Service would confirm that they cheerfully deliver to it every day as a state with no extra shipping charges, and that they deliver to inside the United States, she finally pointed out that if I wanted to count "APO/FPO" as a separate country, I could make it happen.

What does this mean, aside from the fact that ebay is full of retards? That military people currently serving overseas buying from Ebay are going to start running into problems with idiots who insist that they're buying from outside the country and should be paying international rates, despite the fact that it doesn't cost international rates to ship to APO/FPO.

It's short sighted and stupid. I can tolerate it when small companies just learning the internet ropes make this mistake, but when a major, multi-billion dollar company makes this mistake? It is flat-out offensive.

Anyway, so I decided to start a list. I'm looking for contributions as well, so anyone who finds another company who does not offer support to military members stationed overseas by:
not allowing them something so simple as a manual tab
refusing to ship to APO addresses
does not acknowledge that APO addresses count as part of the United States for shipping purposes

shall be listed here, and hopefully be a little bit shamed.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

New GI Bill Snags: Really, Is This What We Fought For? (Updated)

Army of Dude has a post up with some answers to those GI Bill questions that aren't answered anywhere on the VA website. Everyone, I warn you before you go there to read, sit down, and make sure there are no small children around, because you're going to want to curse loud and long after you see it.

Most of my issues relate to the housing thing. Why is this a big deal? Well, I'm a single mom who hasn't gotten child support for four years. Not exactly rolling in the bucks. Once I get out and start going to school, whenever that is, I doubt things will be improved by my no longer receiving a steady paycheck. And like AOD notes, the people you rent housing from are notorious about wanting to be paid /before/ you actually live there.

The other item that seems like it's going to be absolute shite is the fact that the VA is going to be coming up with a magical number of days of school you need to be enrolled for in a month before it estimates you as worthy of receiving full housing allowance that month. I'm sorry, VA, maybe you live in Magic McShinyHappyLand where the fact that your budget is going to wildly fluctuate depending on your school schedule is not a problem, but the rest of us don't. Veterans are the group who can least afford to be fucked with this way, and it's going to play merry hell with the scheduling.

Army of Dude's a little more positive about this than I am. Part of this is because AOD is a little bit more positive a person than I am (you hear that, unicorns, migrate over that way now). Part of this may also (I'm not sure) be because AOD wasn't walking the halls of Congress stumping for an improved GI Bill before it was a twinkle in Jim Webb's eye. And he may not have had the experience of having politicians look him in the eye and say, "Don't worry, we're going to take care of you."

Shinseki, where the hell are you on this? Dude, I'm willing to forgive you for the beret. I AM WILLING TO FORGIVE YOU FOR THE BERET. That's major. I have hated the beret for the past eight years with an unholy passion. But I'll forget about it all. Just do your damn job, please. Fix the VA. I promise, I won't ask for anything for Christmas ever again, especially not a pony.

Got some clarifiation from Army of Dude, who's a gentleman and a scholar. He has clarified that the issue of how many days is how many days you are enrolled for that month, not which days you actually attend class. I'm still not thrilled with the way the GI bill is being implemented, but that makes me want to beat it over the head with a blunt sledgehammer a little less. Also, he has been on the GI Bill thing as long as I have, and I am a jerk for assuming otherwise. He put it more nicely, of course. It's that whole gentleman thing.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The world still moves

Sometimes it seems as though no major changes happen in the Army, at least not with any sort of swiftness. For example, I've been using the self-service options on Army Knowledge Online (AKO) to check on the status of some paperwork in Washington. Every day, it has the same status: submitted, paperwork open. It's becoming, despite myself, almost comforting in its incompleteness-familiar. Army slow on paperwork-yep, tell another one.

Then sometimes it seems as though they move all too quickly. I have to say that for the last eight months, I've had a pretty decent squad leader. He's hated my politics, but hasn't held them specifically against me or treated me any differently because of them. He's avoided triggering my PTSD whenever possible and has allowed me reasonable accommodation. Normally, I'd be afraid to mention that having him as a leader has made my life easier, because with the harassment I've been under for this blog and my IVAW membership, I'd fear a transfer. However, at this point, it doesn't really matter, because he's already being transferred. It's something he wants, going back to a line unit, so I can't really be too bitter. But at the same time, I'm wondering who the Army is going to put me under. Will it be the squad leader who already has multiple sexual harassment complaints against him? Will they bring in a new squad leader?

Never fear, I'll keep you all posted as soon as I learn more. And I'm going to do my best not to let it spoil my leave.