Veteran Roundtable: Education Benefits

I have heard the words “I wish I would have known” from veterans more times than I can count — it is the main reason why I created the Post-Military Professional in the first place. Veteran Roundtable is an ongoing series, one that shares advice from service members who have “been there.”

This Roundtable features insights and advice about utilizing education benefits in and out of service from nine former members of the US Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. Yours truly even enters the fray this time around.

These panelists represent diverse perspectives from a wide variety of career fields and backgrounds. Some questions have vastly different responses. Your experiences will vary as well. It is important to note that the onus is on you to research and determine which benefits and resources are available or applicable to you.

On the heels of a transition and don’t know where to start? Try the Federal Benefits Guidebook.

Additionally, I am always looking for input from veterans from all branches and occupational specialties. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below, or on the PMP Facebook page. If you would like to be interviewed for a future Roundtable, please drop me a line using this contact form.

Today’s panel:

What branch did you serve in and when? What is your current occupation?

Camiren – I served in the United States Army as a Human Resources Specialist. I am currently a Divisional Training Manager for MGM National Harbor.

Alex – USMC 2009-2013– Field Radio Operator, and currently a Military Recruiter with Amazon Web Services. Click here for information about job opportunities through Amazon’s Military Apprenticeship Program. 

Maureen – Currently a GS9 Property Disposal Specialist with the Defense Logistics Agency. 22 years retired GySgt Marine Corps, Supply Administration/MCT Instructor/Marine Recruiter.

Joseph – I enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 2005 and served four years as a drummer/percussionist for the Band of Mid-America.  I am presently a labor and employment attorney in the Los Angeles office of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP.

James – I served in the United States Navy 2008-2010 as a Nuclear Machinist Mate. 

Dean – Air Force. Musician, Regional Band Superintendent, Band Manager. Currently the owner of a tax preparation business.

Curtis – I was Army, then Army Reserve, all as Combat Medic. Currently I am the Membership Director for the Wisconsin Veterans Chamber of Commerce.

Benny – United States Air Force. Material Management and Military Training Instructor. I am currently a technical writer for cyber defense/cybersecurity.

Adam – USAF – Military Training Instructor 8B000. I am currently the District Partner for JDog Junk Removal and Hauling in SE Wisconsin and founder/author of The Post-Military Professional.

Which education benefits did you (or a dependent) use and when? Were you an active/guard/reserve service member at the time or a veteran?

Camiren – I used the Post-9/11 GI Bill to complete my Master’s degree while still on active duty and am still using it currently as an Army veteran.

Alex – Montgomery GI Bill first, then the Post-9/11 GI Bill, all as a veteran.

Maureen – Tuition Assistance for time on active duty, earned AA in General Studies. In 1998 I earned a BSBA in Human Resource Management. Currently using GI Bill towards an MBA.

Joseph – I separated from active duty in 2009 to utilize my Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, including the Yellow Ribbon Program.

James – I am currently using the Post-9/11 GI Bill as a veteran. I will be graduating on Dec 16, 2018.

Dean – My daughter used my GI Bill for her undergraduate studies. Active duty when I transferred it and she used it.

Curtis – I used the Post-9/11 GI Bill while in the Reserves and then the Wisconsin GI Bill thereafter.

Benny – I used the Post-9/11 GI Bill to obtain my Bachelor’s Degree in Information Technology and to attend a coding bootcamp. This all occurred after retirement.

Adam – I used my Post-9/11 GI Bill to get a Master’s degree while I was active duty. No idea how I survived! I took accelerated courses, so I have over half of my GI Bill eligibility left. Not a lot of people realize that up to a certain limit, the Post-9/11 GI Bill is based on TIME (in months), not credits. You only get docked eligibility for days that you are an active student, so someone who takes 12 credits will “use up” the same about of benefit as someone who takes 18 credits during the same period of time. Since I squeezed in as many courses as I could, I have enough of the benefit left to get another Master’s degree, which I plan on doing.

Click here for general information about the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

Click here for general information about the Montgomery GI Bill (active duty).

Click here for general information about the Montgomery GI Bill (selected reserve).

What was the level (associate/undergraduate/graduate/etc.) and field of study?

Camiren – I used my Post-9/11 GI Bill to complete my Master’s degree and am currently using it to complete my Education Specialist and Doctor of Education degrees through Liberty University.

Alex – Bachelor of Arts in Political Science.

Maureen – Undergraduate and Graduate studies.

Joseph – I attended law school at Washington University in St. Louis and earned a Juris Doctor.

James – I am currently attending UW-Madison for a BS in Nuclear Engineering.

Dean – Undergraduate, Economics and Psychology.

Curtis – Undergraduate: Finance, Graduate: MBA (currently completing).

Benny – Information Technology with a concentration in Java Programming (Bachelor’s Degree).

Adam – Master’s in Arts Development and Program Management — essentially an MBA for non-profits in the arts sector.

How easy was it to register for classes? Were there any complications in coordinating between the VA and the educational institution? 

Camiren – Registering and enrolling for classes using the Post-9/11 GI Bill has been pretty easy over the course of completing my Master’s degree from Bellevue University and currently completing my Ed.S and Ed.D degrees. The coordination between the universities and the VA was seamless, and there were never any complications up to this point.

Alex – Overall the process was simple. I worked full-time, so I had priority registration. The Veteran Services Office at Texas A&M did a great job submitting paperwork on time in order to ensure payment.

Maureen – Very simple process. Representatives at colleges are very knowledgeable about benefits.

James – I was able to register like a normal student.

Dean – There was a bit of an issue here. Paperwork had to be coordinated and it was a bit complicated the first time. After that there were no issues.

Curtis – It was very easy. My counselor walked me through it all. The only struggle was learning how and when to withdraw if needed.

Benny – Very easy. American Military University took care of everything once I registered for classes and selected GI Bill, Chapter 33. Zero complications or issues.

Adam – Once you get your eligibility letter, it’s easy as pie. The school and the VA handled all of the communications and transactions.

Were there any problems receiving payments or disbursements? Or issues with the VA paying your educational institution?

Camiren – There have not been any issues with receiving payments for BAH or payments to either of the universities that I have attended. The universities even moved swiftly to withdraw me from courses that I withdrew from and sent information to the VA so that my benefits were recouped in a timely manner.

Alex – There was one semester where there was a delay in payment from the VA, but Texas A&M was able to provide alternative payment while the VA worked through a backlog.

Joseph – There were a handful of issues which were expected given the VA’s reputation.  The most material issue was an over-payment of $2500 which I had to pay back. I seem to recall a delay or two with payment to Wash. U., but the Registrar’s Office handled those issues.

James – There were no issues in receiving payments.

Dean – The lag time for payment to the university was very slow, and a few times I was actually charged late fees that were later dropped by the university.

Curtis – None.

Benny – All payments arrived to the school and myself on time with zero problems.

Adam –  The school paid the VA directly, and I wasn’t charged a penny. Like clockwork, I received a book stipend via direct deposit at the beginning of every section. Any late payments from the VA were handled internally and late fees dropped. That only happened a couple of times, though.

Did you ever call the VA with questions? If so, were they helpful?

Camiren –  I did contact the VA during the completion of my Master’s degree to ensure accuracy of my months of benefits remaining, and they were extremely helping in relaying information related to my request. They even followed up with written correspondence that coincided with my request.

Alex – While using the Montgomery GI Bill, I called monthly to verify enrollment. I called the VA when I didn’t receive BAH. The VA was helpful.

Joseph – I believe I called and emailed a few times and received the best information available.  The Post-9/11 GI Bill was pretty new in 2009, so everyone—the VA and schools—were still figuring things out.

Dean – I did call the VA regarding the lateness of payment, and they just said it will happen when it happens

Adam – Several times. Sometimes it took a while to get a human being on the line, but they were always extremely helpful. If you have questions about the GI Bill and where to start, I’d say don’t be bashful and give them a call.

Did you take advantage of the Yellow Ribbon program? Any advice/thoughts regarding that process?

Camiren –  I did not have an opportunity to take advantage of the Yellow Ribbon Program, because I completed my Master’s degree while on active duty, and service members are unable to use that benefit until they transition from active duty.

Joseph – I did, and it was a factor I considered when evaluating schools.  Once I had received offers from several schools, I asked each to provide a summary of benefits (including Yellow Ribbon supplements) so I could weigh the cost of attendance at each.  Two of those schools ended up covering all tuition and fees, so I was able to attend a Top 20 law school for free and receive a stipend for living expenses. I’d encourage others to evaluate multiple options and request cost-of-attendance summaries from each school.

Click here for general information about the Yellow Ribbon Program.

What advice would you have for service members considering utilizing their education benefits in the future, whether in or post-service? What should they do to prepare?

Camiren – One piece of advice that I would give to service members and veterans who are considering using their GI Bill benefits would be to do your research and ensure that you are using your benefits for a degree or trade diploma that is in line with the career path that you see yourself in for many years to come. Many times, there isn’t a clear understanding of a desired post-military career, and individuals waste part of their benefits figuring that out.

Alex – Weigh your options regarding Montgomery versus Post-9/11. Research options out-of-state, whether Yellow Ribbon or Out of State waivers for veterans.

Maureen – My advice is research and plan ahead prior to exiting active duty. Use the resources provided during separations classes to fully understand the program. Set short- and long-term goals ahead of time so that the monies provided will be used most effectively. Never allow life to get in the way of the education benefits (i.e. kids, etc., etc.) — they are just excuses not reasons. If you want it bad enough, you will find a way to get it done.

Joseph – Study hard for any standardized admissions testing, and understand that the Admissions Office is not going to give you a free pass just because you’re a veteran.  The same is true in life—being a veteran is an immense personal asset (and can be a great networking ice-breaker), but no one is going to roll out a red carpet and hand you a gold star for your service.  You have to enter the civilian rat race and run just as fast as everyone else.

James – Be prepared to work hard in classes, because if you drop enough classes to go below 12 credits, then you will have to pay back some money. 

Dean – Just get smart with the paperwork and where to send it and who to coordinate with at the university

Curtis – Understand all of the benefits you receive and get in to the VA right away. Vocational Rehab is another resource once service-connected disabled over 30 percent. Connect right away with local Veteran Service Officers.

Benny – I would advise them if they are still in to utilize the tuition assistance and get as much of their educational goals accomplished prior to leaving service. This can save the GI Bill benefits for later use or to pass on to dependents.

Adam – Do it. Just do it. There will never be a “good time.” You will always be busy. Plus, if you aren’t quite sure what to do post-service or don’t want to dive into finding a job right away, this is an excellent way to give yourself some time. Also, keep in mind that there will be very few veterans in class with you. Especially if you are diving into your undergraduate degree post-service, be prepared to sit next to a bunch of 18-year-old kids who have no life experience whatsoever. Some have strong opinions about you, your service, and “what the military should be doing.” Try not to throat punch any of them.

If you could go back in time, what would you do differently?

Camiren – I think that I wouldn’t change a thing in regards to my education and usage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, because I am on track with my career and educational goals, and going along this path made it a possibility.

Alex –  I would have stayed with the Montgomery GI Bill and transferred to Post-9/11 for those extra 12 months of benefits in order to pursue a Graduate degree.

Maureen – Ensure that I passed my education benefits to my kids.

Joseph – Be careful how I spend my stipend.  It’s easy to separate from the military and see life as a massive party, especially when you’re a single, 27-year-old guy as I was.  I picked up a lot of tabs at bars because I had what my law school buddies called “free money from the government.” It was money well spent in terms of social enrichment, but I suppose I could have tossed it into my Roth IRA.

Dean – wouldn’t change anything; it was a wonderful benefit for our daughter.

Curtis – I would use benefits more wisely. Plan it out better and maximize all the resources.

Benny – Obtain my degree prior to leaving service. I started in 1999 but am now finishing up 26 August 2018. That way, I could’ve used the GI Bill for continued education or certification courses.

Adam – I don’t regret getting my Master’s, but I definitely would’ve gotten an MBA instead of a specialized Master’s degree.

How has using your education benefits helped you? Has it opened any doors? Any closing thoughts?

Camiren – The use of my Post-9/11 GI Bill allowed me the opportunity to reach life-long goals of being the first in my family to obtain an advanced degree and to be on course to obtain a doctorate degree.  It allowed me the opportunity for a smooth transition from active duty into a career that directly aligns with my aspirations. I think that service members should maximize this benefit that was earned through blood, sweat, and tears so that they can reap the benefits of their sacrifice to this nation.

Alex – The GI Bill is a major reason why I enlisted. I was able to graduate college debt-free and meet friends and mentors, which helped me get my job at Amazon. The GI Bill pays you to go to school; take advantage of the opportunity you have earned.

Maureen – I highly recommend that all service members take advantage of this benefit. Every penny is earned and not given, so there should be zero shame in using it. There are sometimes negative stereotypes associated with this program that can only be debunked by changing the mindset.

Joseph – The GI Bill was an immense windfall—I believe it covered over $250,000 in tuition, fees, and expenses.  Beyond that, it gave me the security to leave the service and attend a great school where I met my wife and dozens of amazing friends.  My degree enabled me to secure jobs in large markets like New York City and Los Angeles, and I’m now an associate at one of the largest and most successful law firms in the world.  I did not anticipate this outcome when I enlisted in 2005, but it seems to be working out.

James – I would not have gone to school if I had not had the GI bill to pay my way.

Dean –  Huge benefit for our family. I valued the cost to send my daughter to a top state university, and over the 4 years, it was worth around $120,000. The monies we did not have to use for her education were invested and used for her to buy her first house.

Curtis – Not necessarily related to the GI Bill, but my degree and military service have opened up doors unlike anything else.

Benny – Absolutely! The GI Bill, besides the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), can benefit every service member who is enlisted. Even if they entered with an awarded degree, this benefit can be used for the future or to pass on to loved ones. I do not think there are any reasons not to sign up for the GI Bill. I am glad I did, otherwise my degree would have been through student loans and personal cost. 

Adam – Higher education will make you more knowledgable and more marketable. It has led to countless opportunities. And free higher education? And the VA pays you a living stipend so you can focus on school? An absolute goldmine. What are you waiting for?

Many thanks to our fantastic panelists!

Do you have any insights in response to the panel questions or experiences you’d like to share? I’m all ears! Tell me what’s on your mind in the comments section below or on the PMP Facebook page. Don’t forget, if you would like to be a panelist on a future Roundtable, drop me a line using this contact form.

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