Student vets fear for pay

Tyler Hobbs, far right, waits in Punsan for transport after three months of field operations in South Korea. He served in the Marine Corps from 2004 – 2009.

By Katie Zeck

Tyler Hobbs is a 27-year-old Marine veteran and elementary education major at Rider. He was married this past summer and is expecting his first child.

If the federal government shutdown continues and the debt ceiling is not raised before Nov. 1, Hobbs fears he will not receive the monthly stipend provided to him through the Post 9/11 GI Bill, which he and his wife are depending on to fund their new life together.

Another student veteran, junior advertising major Jonathan Bowker, said because the shutdown took place after the start of the semester, Rider student veterans have their tuition paid for the fall, but he shares the fear that he may lose the money that supplements his income.

“The funding, which is provided to us as a monthly stipend for our rent and living expenses, is being postponed, which really puts a thorn in my side,” Bowker said.

Additionally, military.com — a site used as a way to connect the 30 million Americans with military affiliations — confirmed that if the government fails to reach an agreement on raising the debt ceiling to avoid a default on Oct. 17, the legislation that brought back furloughed Defense Department civilian employees would be canceled. This legislation allowed for the payment of back pay, death benefits, incentive pay, re-enlistment bonuses, veterans disability benefits and survivor benefits.

“[Under default], the first crunch will come when the Nov. 1 payroll is due,” Gordon Adams, a professor at American University, wrote in an article on military.com. “The impact for anybody drawing pay [in the military] will grow increasingly severe. People are probably not going to get paid for a while.”

Rider’s student veterans receive a stipend of $1,000 for books per semester and, on average, $1,494 monthly as a housing allowance, said Hobbs, who served in the Marines Corps from 2004-09 and was deployed to Bangladesh, Japan and South Korea. This allowance, based on the cost of living near the school, is determined by the government.

“This stipend is based on your status as a student,” Hobbs said. “Full-time students get the full amount and taking anything under 12 credits means the vet receives proportionately less.”

This is also dictated by the days of actual school, according to the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

“Most vets under the Post 9/11 bill receive meager stipends in December and January when we are in school for less than a week,” Hobbs said. “Usually I would get about $300 in January for my bills. Because of this I have to save some of my stipend from the previous months to offset this decrease — a fact that I did not find out until my first January as a Rider student, because there was no Veterans Affairs Office at Rider at that time.”

Veterans under the Post 9/11 GI bill receive $17,500 a year for tuition. When supplemented by the Yellow Ribbon Program and a matching amount from the university, most vets’ tuition will be totally covered.

The Yellow Ribbon Program, organized by the VA, sets out to ease the transition of soldiers re-entering society as private citizens by providing financial assistance in their pursuit of education.

Those who qualify for the Yellow Ribbon Program must have amassed a period of active duty after Sept. 10, 2001 of at least 36 months or must be honorably discharged from active duty for a service-connected disability and have served, at minimum, 30 continuous days after Sept. 10, 2001.  The Yellow Ribbon Program is a provision of the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008.

Rider has agreed to provide assistance of $8,985 per year across all academic programs, both undergraduate and graduate. VA agrees to make up the difference, so that the student veteran’s tuition is paid in full.

According to Dean of Students Anthony Campbell, Rider’s portion of tuition assistance will not be affected.

“Rider funds its Office of Veterans Affairs, the campus programs and staff,” Campbell said. “The funding provided by the university is not impacted by the federal government shutdown.”

However, the risk to the housing allowances may become a big issue for students like Hobbs who are attempting to support a family.

“My wife and I are trying to prepare for a baby and save for a house,” he said. “We usually are able to save a couple hundred every month for future plans, which includes supplementing our bill payments for the months of December and January.”

Because of the shutdown, Hobbs and his new wife may have to dip into their savings sooner than expected because it is unclear when the shutdown will end.

Campbell said that if the shutdown does continue past Nov. 1, the university would be able to assist veterans who need help.

Manager of the ID card system Greg Hanf is a first sergeant who served for more than three decades from 1967-1999 in the Army, Navy and Marines. He feels that all members of the Rider community should be informed about the adverse affect this shutdown may potentially have on Rider’s student veterans.

“The students, staff and faculty should know that there are students on campus who are made different then other students,” he said. “If the shutdown continues past Nov. 1, I will continue to help the guys out as I have.”

Hanf, or “Top,” as the student veterans call him, is one of a few staff members who have made themselves available to assist student veterans with whatever they may need.

However, many student veterans expressed feelings of neglect and avoidance during this crucial month.

“It was said that we’re a military-friendly school, but we’re not,” said veteran Andrew Kim, a freshman history major. “We’re military acceptant, which just means Rider has student veterans.”

Kim is referring to Rider’s recent ranking as one of the top 15% of veteran-friendly schools by Victory Media Inc.

Hobbs cited specific examples where he feels Rider has fallen short in assisting student veterans.

“I have been told that veteran services are indistinguishable from student services,” he said. “Rider feels that veterans can just go through the same services as regular students, but they fail to understand that our experiences alone separate us from other students.”

Hobbs said that Rider’s Career Services office and Services for Students with Disabilities lack the specialized services necessary to accomodate veterans.

“I have found that Career Services, although eager to help, does not know how to translate ‘line coach at a pistol range’ into acceptable business terms,” he said. “Also, veterans have a hard time talking to anyone who has not shared some of their experiences, let alone a psychiatrist who can’t fathom what they went through.”

The Veterans Affairs Office has only been in existence for less then a year and a half, and since May, the position of Veterans Affairs coordinator has been vacant. Campbell confirmed that a new coordinator will start in the position on Oct. 28.

“Russel Melville, a Rider graduate with an extensive military background, has been hired,” Campbell said. “If a veteran has questions about his military stipends that are paid by the federal government, he or she should contact the VA. If a veteran is having trouble with their benefits, he or she can contact either Karen Crowell in the College of Continuing Students (CCS), Sue Stefanik in the Registrar’s Office for non-CCS or vocational rehabilitation questions, or myself for general assistance.”

Despite this assurance, student veterans said they worry.

“I need [these stipends] to survive,” Bowker said. “If there is no government funding, there is no living. Unfortunately, I live paycheck to paycheck since we get paid on a monthly basis. Rider has offered us the ability to take out loans, interest free, through them up to a certain amount. However, other than that nothing is really being done.”

Bowker added that for now, he’s trying to keep a positive outlook that the shutdown will end before his check is due.

“If there’s anything I’ve learned from my military service, it’s to adapt and overcome,” he said. “So if I don’t get paid, I’ll figure it out. But come November 1, we’ll see if I’m as mellow as I am now.”

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