“When I got here, they were all huddled over there, cuddled up in blankets,” said Hedge, a 46-year-old Army veteran. “I brought them hot coffee and some chairs and got 'em up off the pavement.”
By 5:15 a.m., Hedge said, the crowds were “hot and heavy.” At midmorning, more than 300 people waited in line outside the building. The parking lot overflowed with cars in fire lanes and on grassy medians.
Passed by Congress last year, the Post-9/11 GI Bill has been hailed as the most extensive educational assistance program for veterans since the original GI Bill was signed into law in 1944.
Few have seen money
Unlike the old Montgomery GI Bill, the government pays tuition and fees directly to the school. The veteran also receives a $1,000 stipend for books and a housing allowance based on the local cost of living.
Since May 1, nearly 290,000 veterans have applied to determine eligibility for the enhanced educational benefits, but so far only about 34,000 — less than 12 percent — have received money from the government, VA statistics show.
Last week, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki announced VA would authorize emergency checks for up to $3,000 for students who have applied for educational benefits but have not yet received their government payment. Friday was the first day the checks were distributed at VA regional benefits offices across the country.
Navy veteran Ryan Johnston skipped class Friday to get his check from the VA. The 26-year-old is studying business and criminal justice at Lone Star College in Cypress.
After paying for his own tuition, fees, rent and books, Johnston said, he only has $20 left in his bank account and $4 in his pocket. His cell phone has been shut off because he couldn't pay the bill.
“It's really unexpected and really frustrating. ... I can't work full time because I go to school full time. I pretty much live off this money,” Johnston said. “I've been using credit cards and pretty much running out of the money I've been saving.”
‘Kind of a hassle'
Johnston and other veterans came expecting a long wait. Some read textbooks, others brought their children. VA officials paced up and down the lines outside the regional office handing out paperwork and bottled water. They encouraged veterans to leave and apply for the checks online at www.va.gov, but few budged, determined to get their money at last.
“It's been kind of a hassle because the VA has been dragging its feet paying us,” said Travis Hicks, 27, an Air Force veteran from Deer Park who attends San Jacinto Community College. “They've had plenty of time to prepare for