Government shutdown could force student veterans to leave school

JONESBORO, AR (KAIT) – The partial shutdown of the federal government has raised uncertainty about many benefits programs, including those for veterans.

Thousands of student veterans across the country are now worried that they'll lose their education benefits provided by the federal government to help them pay for school.

At Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, many students there fear they'll have to quit if they cannot get their payments from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) next month.

Nathan Tompkins is one of them. He enrolled at ASU three years ago in hopes of changing careers. The disabled Army veteran would like to leave behind his heating and air business and become an emergency worker.

"It goes right along with my military career that I had," he said. "I was in the Army National Guard with the 875th Combat Engineering Battalion, Alpha Company. Throughout my career, we have done a lot of things that have to do with disasters and emergencies, so I thought that would fit right down my alley."

For the past three years, the VA has completely funded his tuition, books and supplies through the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Program.

"It's a benefit we've earned if we're disabled or if we've been combat-wounded," Tompkins said, "to help us rehabilitate out of one business – if we can't do it anymore or if it's hard on us – and then into another business, which would be easier for us."

"I'm rehab-ing out of the HVAC or heating and air field because I have to climb up in attics and underneath floors," he added, "and it's really hard on my body."

Many veterans know the program as 'voc rehab,' which also gives them a monthly stipend to help pay for other expenses – like travel, food and utilities. For many of Tompkins' friends, that money is their only source of income. Now, they may not get that check next month if the government shutdown lasts much longer.

"If they do cut that out and they do not get that check at the first of the month, that's going to be a huge impact on our veterans," Kelly McCoy said. "They may decide that they may not be able to go to school."

McCoy works as a services specialist for the Beck PRIDE Center at ASU. She says all 69 combat-wounded veterans enrolled in the Center's programs depend on 'voc rehab' to stay in school. Without that benefit, she fears they'll all have to quit.

"They're very worried about it," McCoy said about the student veterans. "Some of them, that's their only income they have right now. Some of them are still waiting on their pending VA compensation claims, so, yes, this is a huge thing. A lot of them had to turn to going to school just to make ends meet."

What's even worse, she says, is that 432 students at ASU get some kind of education benefits from the VA, which could all go unfunded because of the shutdown.

"I'm really hurt by what's going on with our government," McCoy said, "to know that some of my veterans may not be able to provide for themselves."

For Tompkins, he says he'll have to drop out of school if he loses his VA benefits, but he's optimistic the shutdown will end soon.

"I'm not going to be hurt by it as much as the others because I always do have the heat and air to fall back on, which is really, really comforting," he said. "I could fall back to something. A lot of these guys really can't. I mean, they're going to be really struggling."

The secretary of the VA warned the House Veterans Affairs Committee this week that if the shutdown continues, education benefits and living stipends under the GI Bill program will stop for more than 500,000 veterans and service members nationwide.

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