VENTURA, Calif. - The Veterans Administration has struggled with bad press in recent years and our Tipline story won't do anything to change that. We focus on the V.A.'s G.I. Bill and how one big mistake could put a local vet out on the streets.
Harold Boons served his country for 34 years.
"I got called up in what I think was the last draft for the Vietnam War," said Boons.
In 1971, he was drafted into the Air Force, served during the war and continued his service in the Army Reserve. He also worked for the U.S. Post Office.
"You can consider that my career, up until 9/11," said Boons.
That's when he was called back into full active duty, until he was forced to retire in 2012. The newly retired Master Sergeant made a bold move and decided to go back to school. He took classes at city colleges in Los Angeles, but dreamed about getting a Bachelor's Degree.
"I finally was able to get into Cal-State University Channel Islands, yea, it felt good just to be able to do that," said Boons with a big smile on his face.
He received an Associates Degree in 1975 under the Vietnam G.I. Bill. This time, he took advantage of the V.A.'s Post 9-11 G.I. Bill.
"You gotta imagine, I'm over 60 years old and I'm going to school with kids fresh out of high school. They enjoyed me I think and I enjoyed being around them and I was accomplishing this goal that I had at the same time," said Boons.
He majored in Performance Arts and got bit parts in ABC's hit show 'Scandal', another show called 'State of Affairs' and he even played a zombie in 'Scream Queens.' Everything seemed to be going well, until he noticed the V.A. wasn't sending him checks for his tuition and books. He said V.A. representatives told him the money was on the way.
"Any day now, from the very beginning of this I'm gonna receive my benefits from the V.A. for going to school. So, I'm using my credit cards to basically live off of which is supposed to be the per diem I get from the V.A," said Boons.
Months went by, the debt piled up and he called the V.A. again to request a hardship and he's told, "'Oh, if I were you, I wouldn't do that because it looks like they are going to finalize it,' she said," as Boons described the conversation.
More time went by and still no money from the V.A. He eventually got a supervisor who broke the bad news. He wouldn't get any benefits after all. In fact, the V.A.said it mistakenly overpaid him and now wanted Boons to pay back more than $15,000.
"If they did indeed overpay me $15,000 it was a gross error on their part. Everything I had up until that point said, you should be going to school," said Boons.
He has plenty of documentation to prove it. Boons pled his case to local and national V.A. officials, filed a grievance and contacted Congresswoman Julia Brownley's office. But he said no one listened. In November, he received another letter. The V.A. had turned him over to collections.
The Department of Treasury now said he owed $20,000. He dropped out of school, lost everything and is living on a old boat in Ventura Harbor.
"I can't pay my slip fees. There's nothing I could do so I found myself living in pretty much a homeless situation. And I end up in a V.A. transitional housing situation," said Boons.
That's when he contacted the NewsChannel Three Tipline. I checked Boon's documentation and contacted the V.A. in Washington, D.C. A week later, the V.A. admitted it made a mistake and agreed to wipe out the entire debt.
"I am very happy with what NewsChannel 3 has done for me so far. They've accomplished what I couldn't accomplish in a year and a half talking with at least a dozen Veteran's Administration representatives. In one week, C.J. has done what other were not able to accomplish," said Boons.
Here's how the V.A. messed up. A veteran can only get a maximum of 48 months of education benefits regardless of how many G.I. Bills they receive. In this case, the V.A. admits it failed to include Boons's Vietnam era G.I. Bill when calculating his benefits back in 2010.
They also realize Boons relied on their flawed calculation and apologized for the hardship it caused. This is not over, we're in the process of helping Boons get reimbursed for the education expenses he was forced to put on his credit cards. Sadly, he is still looking for a job and doesn't think he can afford to go back to school to fulfill his dream of getting a bachelor's degree.
Response from the Veteran's Administration for this story:
We appreciate NewsChannel 3 and C.J. Ward bringing this matter to our attention. As a result, we have removed Mr. Boons's debt. After reviewing Mr. Boons’s records at the VA's national headquarters, VA concluded that he was not at fault for the debt, which was caused by an "overpayment" by VA of education benefits due to VA's administrative error. VA remains dedicated to putting processes and policies in place to avoid these types of errors for Veterans using benefits.
Here's what happened.
Mr. Boons had used several different VA educational programs. When Mr. Boons initially applied for VA's newest education program, the Post-9/11 GI Bill, in June 23, 2010, he was awarded a total of 36 months of Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, as stated on his Certificate of Eligibility (COE). An internal review found that when VA determined Mr. Boons’s eligibility, the agency incorrectly considered only previously used Montgomery GI Bill-Selected Reserve program benefits, but not previously used months of Vietnam Era Program.
Beneficiaries are allowed a maximum of 48 months of education benefits. Therefore, although Mr. Boons COE granted him 36 months of Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, he truly was only entitled to 13 months of benefits under this program because of his prior use of other education benefit programs.
VA realizes that beneficiaries rely on COEs and accurate determinations to access their benefits, and apologizes for the financial hardship this may have caused Mr. Boons. VA has attempted to contact Mr. Boons and is mailing a letter to follow up.
Response from Congresswoman Julia Brownley's Office:
"I have been and will continue to be a staunch supporter of the GI Bill, an essential benefit that helps veterans pursue a successful career after their service to our nation. In many areas, the VA must provide better information to veterans about benefits they qualify for, and they must reduce any bureaucracy that impedes a veteran's access to these benefits. If there is a systemic problem uncovered, I'd expect the VA to address it, or I'll introduce legislation that will."