When Amber Oberg left the U.S. Army after eight years of active duty, her timing seemed perfect. Congress was creating a Post-9/11 GI Bill, with generous payments for veterans seeking higher education.
But a month into her first semester at UC Davis, Oberg has yet to receive her tuition, housing and book money from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"I didn't expect to get out of the military and then have to wait and wait for the education money that was promised me," said Oberg, a single mother of two. She said she went back to school after a personal bankruptcy and the loss of her home to foreclosure.
Many veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are struggling to make ends meet because of delayed education payments, according to veterans groups. But VA officials said they were moving as quickly as possible to process a flood of last-minute applications under a complex, two-step process required by the law.
Some veterans have had to get part-time jobs or borrow money from family and friends, said Ryan Gallucci of AMVETS, an advocacy organization. A few have reported dropping out of school due to a lack of cash, Gallucci said. In cases where schools were not willing to wait, some veterans have has to had to use non-GI bill loans and scholarships to pay their tuition.
Most colleges have allowed veterans to attend classes while they await the government payments they're due. But without housing money, veterans can't cover basics like rent and food. And many cannot afford to pay for books without those stipends.
"Schools may be willing to wait for tuition payments, but creditors and landlords don't have a deal with the government. They want their money now," said Isaac Pacheco, an AMVETS employee and former Marine who is attending graduate school at Georgetown University under the latest GI Bill.
Veterans were eligible to apply for the education assistance beginning May 1, but most waited until late summer to file, according to the VA.
After receiving the proper paperwork, the government must certify that a veteran qualifies for the program based on his or her military service. Payments cannot go out, however, until the school certifies that the veteran has been approved for enrollment. Because of state budget cycles, most schools could not do that until mid-August.
From that point, it takes an average of 35 days to process and send payments, said Keith Wilson, the VA's director of educational services. A recorded VA phone message tells veterans to expect payments six to eight weeks after they are certified.
P.W. Dunne, a VA undersecretary, has written schools to thank those that have kept veterans enrolled while awaiting late tuition payments. "The learning curve has been steep for us all," Dunne wrote.
About 24,500 veterans have been approved for enrollment at colleges this year under the Post-9/11 GI Bill. The VA says it has processed about 11,500 payments so far. Wilson said he did not know how many veterans had received tuition and book stipends.
The bill covers veterans who have served since Sept. 11, 2001. It was signed into law by President George W. Bush in June 2008, but did not take effect until Aug. 1 of this year.
Previous GI bills pay a flat rate. The new bill provides varying amounts for tuition, fees, housing and books -- based on a veteran's service, the university and other factors.
"It's a great new program, but it doesn't do us much good if they don't provide the benefits," said Robert Barker, 35, a Navy veteran attending Rhode Island College who said he has not received tuition, housing or book money.
Book stipends pay up to $1,000 per academic year. Housing payments range from about $800 a month to $2,700 a month.
Because housing payments issued at the end of the month are intended to cover the previous month's costs, veterans are not due money for September housing costs until Oct. 1. Wilson said he could not predict how many veterans would receive those payments.
Mike DeVaughn, who served five years in the Army, including a tour in Iraq, said his parents had to pay for his books at Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland because he has not received his stipend. And since he is awaiting his housing payment, he is living at home.
"I need that payment," he said. "There's no way on Earth I can afford to live in an apartment on my own."
Pacheco, an Iraq veteran, said Georgetown has received his tuition money, but only because he was one of about 30 veterans who applied in May under a VA pilot program. Even so, he's still awaiting payments for living expenses and books.
"If I'm the test case to make sure they get this right, well, they haven't," Pacheco said.
At UC Davis, Oberg, 34, said she doesn't know how long she and her children can remain in her foreclosed home while she pursues a double major in psychology and sociology. She said she desperately needs the $1,736 monthly housing payment to make ends meet.
Oberg said she enrolled in early August, but did not receive a prorated housing payment as expected on Sept. 1 -- and has been unable to reach anyone at the VA to tell her when she can expect it.
While Wilson said that the goal of the Department of Veterans Affairs was to make sure that every GI bill payment goes out as quickly as possible, Gallucci said that AMVETS was focusing on the Oct. 1 date.
"That's the day we find out just how serious this problem is," he said.