Back then, Harper was nervous about the delay, but in an interview last week after final exams at the University of Houston, he said the Department of Veterans Affairs appears to have fixed the problem.
“I think they've worked out a lot of the kinks so once I got past that first little lag, I got my payments regularly,” Harper said. “It's taught me patience, and I think the benefits outweigh any of the inconvenience. … In the end, it was absolutely worth it.”
$3 billion issued
Passed by Congress in 2008, 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.
Under the Post-9/11 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.
But the program got off to a rocky start when a rush of applications swamped VA officials, who ended up issuing $3,000 emergency checks to student veterans in October to tide them over until their paperwork went through.
Since then, VA officials say the department has streamlined the Post-9/11 GI Bill claims process by hiring an extra 750 employees and instituting mandatory overtime to speed up claim processing The department also set up a call center, which handles 10,000 inquiries daily.
For the current fiscal year, VA's average processing time is 53 days for original claims and 21 days for supplemental claims. But the average processing time for last month was 20 days for originals and 13 days for supplementals.
VA has issued more than $3 billion in Post-9/11 GI Bill benefit payments to 255,000 student veterans and their educational institutions for the fall and spring semesters, VA spokeswoman Jessica Jacobsen said in a statement.
“They are making improvements and yeah, you see a lot less sad faces walking around,” said Chris Webb, a peer counselor for veterans at UH.
More than 300 veterans attend UH on the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
Settling in on campus
Webb, an Army veteran who served in Iraq, said he's “cautiously optimistic and maybe a bit cynical” after last fall's frustrating experience, but emergency checks were not necessary for the spring semester and, so far, payments for students enrolled for the summer are coming in on time.
No longer distracted by financial worries, veterans like Harper are settling into campus life.
Harper said he loves UH, where he earned a “nice, high GPA” as a pre-med student during his first two semesters. If he follows his plan of attending summer sessions, Harper will be on track to graduate in fall 2013.
“I'm an older student and stuff, but it's been so exciting, and I've been just completely immersed in it,” he said. “I enjoy the lectures and classes, and I spend most of my time in the library studying.”
Harper lives on campus, where the GI Bill's monthly living stipend is enough to cover housing and book expenses, so he doesn't have to find part-time work to support his studies.
Recently, he found himself researching the Iraq War for one of his classes. He said going back to college has given him a new perspective on international politics and the battles he took part in as a Marine.
“College has been a really good catharsis as far as understanding the history and what was going on outside my little sphere of influence over there,” he said.