December 7, 2009
by Lauren French
GW student and Iraq war veteran Brian Hawthorne testified before Congress Thursday in front of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs at the Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity's Education Roundtable.
Hawthorne is the founder and president of GW Veterans, a student organization that aims to build a community for student veterans on campus. He is also the legislative director of the Student Veterans of America.
Hawthorne spoke only three times during the nearly two-hour open discussion, which varied between the 17 panelists offering recommendations for improvements in the Department of Veterans Affairs and its implementation of the post-9/11 GI Bill. The director of the Office of Education Services in the department, Keith Wilson, also spoke, explaining some of the reasons the department was backlogged with benefits applications this fall.
The Washington Post reported in September that the department received more applications than they expected, leaving more than 90 percent of veterans who submitted claims without checks to cover the cost of tuition or housing. As of Oct. 1, no GW veterans had received payments and only half had received benefits as of Nov. 11.
The department did offer $3,000 emergency loans at its regional offices to cover housing and book allowances at the beginning of October but, as Hawthorne pointed out during the testimony, $3,000 covers less than two months rent in D.C. Hawthorne said he knows of veterans who are facing eviction for late payments.
"Landlords don't care if they will be paid eventually by the VA," Hawthorne said. "They want their money November 1, December 1, January 1."
Hawthorne said a problem for veterans is they do not have someone to contact in the veterans affairs department, which left them without support when their benefits did not come through.
"How do we take that person and make sure they are talking to someone besides 1-800-GI-Bill?" he asked.
Before the roundtable, the subcommittee took suggestions from the panelists about what steps Congress and the veterans affairs department must take to ensure veterans get the benefits they need in an easy and timely manner. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., the subcommittee's chairwoman, said the recommendations centered on prioritizing applications and processing the applications for veterans who are immediately enrolling in a university. The other recommendations were using mass media outreach to connect with veterans and enhancing the department's Web site with interactive features.
The other panelists, who included representatives from different universities and veteran advocacy groups, discussed the technical issues of benefit certificates, which tell veterans how much money they will receive from the government, the definitions of terms like semester and quarter, and the manual system used by the veterans affairs department to process benefits.
The ranking Republican member of the Committee on Veterans Affairs, Steve Buyer, R-Ind., said the central issue for veterans is getting them their benefits on time.
"What good are benefits if we can't deliver them in a timely manner? That's our problem and our challenge at the time," Buyer said.