I am a veteran of the United States Navy Reserve. I commissioned in 2009, spent four years as a “weekend warrior,” served a four-month active duty deployment to the Middle East in 2013, and received my honorable discharge in 2017.
I readily admit that my military service is actually very little compared to others, therefore I do not boast about my service. I feel deserve far less in benefits than others because of that limited service, and I don’t ask the Veterans Administration (VA) for much because I think the VA should be spending its time focusing on the veterans who really need its help, like rehabilitating disabled veterans, supporting the 22-year old enlisted who recently separated and is trying to start a life after the military, and providing health care to retirees.
I have not and will not take advantage of a VA program if I do not feel I have deserved it. Case in point: When I was deployed to the Middle East, another service member tried to convince me to apply for disability benefits because of tendinitis I had in my right foot.
“I developed this problem before I was deployed,” I said, referring to a half-marathon I ran earlier in the year.
“It doesn’t matter,” the person responded. “You have the problem now while in uniform, so you could probably get 25 percent disability for it.”
My response was simple: “I’m not going to take something I don’t deserve and pull resources from someone who does.”
That said, the two things with which I would like the VA to help me are small, simple things: obtaining the Veteran’s Identification Card and a summary of my GI Bill benefits, the latter of which I earned for having served more than six months on active duty throughout my service period. I had no idea how complicated and frustrating this would be, thanks to malfunctioning webpages and unreasonable hold times on the phone.
First, when I signed in to the Vets.gov website, I got bounced from the verification page multiple times. Only after attempting to log in two or three times was I able to get into the system. When I was finally in, I navigated to the Veterans Identification Card application page, and ran into more problems:
For some reason, the VA didn’t have my records, despite being sent copies of my discharge paperwork, and the site told me to call the Vets.gov Help Desk. On Tuesday night, February 20th, around 7 p.m., I called the Help Desk and waited in a queue for 20 minutes before I hung up without speaking to anyone. On Friday, February 23rd, I called again at 8:34 a.m., at which point I started writing this post. At 9:04 a.m., I was still waiting for a response.
As I waited and listened to the call through my phone’s speaker, I heard three different messages, in three different voices, repeated over and over again, sometimes cutting off and overlapping another:
“We are experiencing a high call volume. Please hold and the next available representative will be with you as soon as possible. Thank you for your patience.”
“Thank you for calling. We will return to take your call in just one moment.”
Then I heard this one, which I think might provide me some specific guidance on the ID card:
“We apologize about the delay. If you are calling about the new Veteran’s ID Card to receive discounts from participating retailers, and do not already have a VA identification card, DOD retirement card, or veterans designated drivers license, visit the Vets.gov website today. Please continue to hold and your call will be answered in the order it was received.”
I went to the website, and it told me to call the Help Desk. With no answer, the recording told me to go to the website. After 35 minutes in the queue, I still had not spoken with anyone.
As I waited, I decided to look at the Vets.gov website to get information on the one other benefit in which I’m interested: the Post-9/11 GI Bill. The program provides financial aid to veterans to help them pay for almost any type of training or schooling. As I’m considering obtaining a Master’s Degree, I wanted to check to see how much VA support I could get to help pay for the program. I navigated to the “Education & Training” section of the website and clicked on the eligibility tab, which took me to this page:
“We’re sorry. Something’s not working quite right with the GI Bill benefits tool. We’re working to fix the problem. If you encounter any errors, please try again later.”
I tried this on Tuesday, as well, and received the same message. Now it’s Friday and the same message was still there. My phone call had topped 42 minutes, and the repetitive messages continued. I clicked around on the website further and find a button that says “Help.” I clicked on it, and it showed me this:
“Call the Vets.gov Help Desk”
I did, and it had now been 45 minutes and I still hadn’t spoken to someone. I heard the same message: “We are experiencing a high call volume. Please hold and the next available representative will be with you as soon as possible. Thank you for your patience.”
While still on hold, I went back and edited this blog post, and my phone call topped 60 minutes. I had been waiting for an hour and still hadn’t spoken to anyone. Finally, after waiting for 70 minutes, a man answered the phone and asked me for my first and last name and inquired as to how he can help me. I told him that I was looking to get a Veteran’s ID card, but that my records could not be found via the website, as well as wanting to determine my GI Bill benefits.
The man told me that the GI Bill eligibility tool on the website has been down for some time and directed me to the VA’s Education Department, which I could call at 1-888-442-4551, selecting option 1 and then option 0. He also told me that the online tool to request the ID card had been malfunctioning and that he would need my browser and contact information so he could submit a trouble ticket in his system.
“You should receive a phone call or an email from someone today or in the next few days to help you with this,” he said. Is there anything else I can do?”
He submitted a ticket for one of my issues and told me to call another number for help with my second issue. I thanked him for his help and waited until he hung up. In the end, my call to the Vets.gov Help Desk did not yield any actual solution, but a hand-off to two other groups. With the ticket submitted to fix the issue with my Veteran ID card, I called the VA’s Education Department, and, to my amazement, the call was answered without any hold time.
I spoke with a woman who verified my identity and thanked me for my service. I told her that the online tool to verify GI Bill benefits was broken and that I was hoping she could help determine my eligibility.
“I’m sorry, sir, we don’t determine eligibility over the phone,” she said.
“Of course not, why would they?” I thought to myself. “If the website tool is down and you can’t provide it over the phone, then how do I determine my benefits?” I asked.
“You’ll have to apply for the benefits, and after we review your file with the Department of Defense to determine your applicable time on active duty, we will send you a letter stating the benefits you’re entitled within 30 days.” I thanked her for her assistance and hung up. I went back to the website and submitted my application for education benefits, which took me about 15 minutes to complete. The site told me that the VA would respond in about 30 days.
So in the end, after two phone calls lasting more than an hour and a half, and a 15-minute application, I was in no better position than I was before making the calls and submitting the information. I spent the morning of Friday, February 23rd making those calls and filling out the application. It’s now Sunday, March 25th, and I have received neither a phone call nor an email from the VA regarding my identification card. I have also not received the GI Bill eligibility letter.
And while this is just my situation, I think of all of the other veterans, those who did far more than me in their military service, who are waiting for much more critical services and benefits, and how long the VA will take to support them.