The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Local News

April 2, 2012

Congressman Tim Walz meets with student-veterans, gets an earful

MANKATO — Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan eagerly gave Congressman Tim Walz what he asked for at a meeting at Minnesota State University Monday.

Seeking input from vets attending local colleges, Walz asked for personal experiences about the transition from military service to academic life. Here’s some of what he got.

A disabled Iraq war veteran was on the verge of living in his car because of months-long delays by Veterans Affairs officials in releasing his education benefits. The veteran, attending school at MSU, managed to avoid eviction but ran out of money for food.

“I had to swallow my pride and get food at the food shelf here,” the man told Walz.

The delays in VA payments for higher education were a common theme at the meeting. But there was also frustration about the difficulty in getting private sector employers and schools to recognize expertise gained in the armed forces.

Chad Curran, who spent “nine years, three months and 27 days” in the U.S. Army, is attempting to graduate from MSU in much less than four years.

“I’m trying to fast-track my undergraduate degree,” Curran told Walz. “I’m almost 37 years old.”

So he’s taking class loads, including summer sessions, that would leave most college kids shaking. All while maintaining a 4.0 grade point average.

But Curran was baffled by MSU’s inflexibility in waiving a couple of the general education requirements that students must take to get a degree. A former Army Airborne instructor, Curran figures he could have got by without the public speaking class that helps less experienced undergrads gain confidence in talking to a group.

“They also wanted me to take a phy-ed course,” Curran said. “I did phy-ed for 10 years.”

Another student, deployed mid-semester, was forced to go to each instructor to ask them to provide him with an “incomplete” on his course work. More than one told him it was too late to take an “incomplete” and he would get an F.

Minnesota college instructors are prohibited from failing students because they were activated for military service, but the man’s teachers didn’t seem to be aware of that, the veteran said.

Steve Frantz, an official with the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, was at the meeting and immediately apologized to the soldier/student, saying MnSCU is working hard to boost the support and understanding that professors provide to veterans.

“If we did give you a ‘fail,’ we need to make that up to you,” Frantz said.

And it wasn’t just students sharing their frustration with Walz, who is a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee and a retired Army National Guard command sergeant major.

Deann Schloesser, the VA benefits specialist for North Mankato’s South Central College, said she’s certified in December that certain veterans are enrolled and qualify for VA education payments only to find the veterans still awaiting checks in February and March.

“That’s simply unacceptable,” Schloesser said. “No one can wait that long.”

Schloesser and a counterpart at MSU said they often can’t even get information from the VA on the status of a student’s check or an estimate on when it will arrive.

Walz asked the group if anybody had ever had a good experience submitting their claim for GI Bill benefits.

One hand went up: “Once.”

“So it’s possible to do it,” Walz said, frustration in his voice.

He noted that Americans purchasing a product on-line can track the progress of the item’s delivery, city-by-city, and get an exact estimate of the delivery time from UPS. There’s no reason, he said, that veterans shouldn’t be able to get the equivalent on the status of their GI Bill payments.

Walz also wondered why the IRS can quickly issue refunds to taxpayers — and come after them later for repayment if the tax return proves false — but the VA can’t do the same on veterans benefits.

“The IRS trusts everybody,” Walz said. “The VA doesn’t trust its own veterans. There’s something wrong with that.”

The VA’s motivation is sometimes understandable — to prevent fraud or to make sure a veteran isn’t being preyed upon by an unsavory “college” peddling a worthless degree, according to Walz. But the strategy is holding up 99 legitimate payments to prevent one illegitimate one.

“Like every big bureaucracy, they get stuck and bogged down in process rather than what the overall goal is,” he said.

Walz promised the group he would pursue improvements at the VA so veterans or college officials can get quicker answers to questions about a claim. He also pledged to pursue changes that would allow checks to be sent sooner. And he said he will continue efforts to make it easier for veterans to get the licenses and occupational certificates for private sector jobs when their specialized military experience clearly qualifies them.

Republicans and Democrats on the VA Committee work together, he said. And they share an opinion about veterans benefits such as college aid.

“That is not a handout. That is not government assistance,” he said. “That’s a benefit that was earned.”

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