CLINTON — Prior to starting classes at Clinton Community College, Iowa Army National Guard member Justin Hansen didn’t know how to get the benefits afforded to veterans.
“Before I got here I didn’t know how (Veteran’s Affairs) worked or anything, but they put me on the path to get my benefits,” the 19-year-old Miles native told Congressman Bruce Braley during a visit to the college Monday.
Braley met with local student veterans and the faculty and staff who serve them at Clinton Community College on Monday to talk about the challenges of being student veterans.
Like Hansen, U.S. Air Force veteran Pete Andresen, 40, of Miles, also appreciates the help of staff aimed to assist veterans.
“They know what you’re thinking. They know what you need before you even say it,” Andresen said.
Among the helpful is Glenn Williams, an IT instructor and facilitator for the Student Veterans Association, who explained to Braley, D-Iowa, some of the hurdles student veterans face.
“Money’s tight for students and that’s one of the biggest issues in going to school,” Williams said.
Despite the helpfulness of staff and faculty at CCC, the money many veterans use to pay for school is under the control of officials far beyond the walls of the college.
Although more than 85 percent of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is funded a year in advance by Congress, insulating the veterans’ health care system from the recent government shutdown, not all veteran benefits were shielded.
VA officials warned if the shutdown lasted until November it would be unable to make payments to student veterans, disabled veterans and survivors, putting veterans such as Andresen and Hansen in a bind.
“I learned that monthly check really helps with my decisions, but when the government was shut down I didn’t know if I was going to get it so I didn’t know what to do,” Hansen said. “I was expected to make decisions, but I didn’t know if I had the money to afford those decisions.”
Andresen, a father of three, takes advantage of the Veterans Retraining and Assistance Program. He puts his stipend into school and works part time at the college, making his benefit payments paramount to his family.
“The whole government shutdown was kind of frustrating, because you didn’t know what was coming next,” Andresen said.
When the shutdown ended Oct. 16, the VA announced it would make the payments scheduled for Nov. 1.
Braley, who represented Clinton County in the First Congressional District before redistricting and is now campaigning for retiring Sen. Tom Harkin’s seat, was one of a handful of Democratic House members to vote with Republicans on the 35 bills that would have at least partially reopened government. But he also opposed four of five resolutions that would have avoided the interruption in government services.
“In the shutdown, knowing that some of those checks and checks for fees and educational needs were either delayed or likely to be delayed was a huge concern especially when you have people whose lives are in place depending on that money being there,” Braley said.
Since the shutdown ended, Braley has pushed for the passage of the Putting Veterans Funding First Act, which would require Congress to fully fund the VA a year ahead of schedule to ensure veterans receive their benefits and keep all VA services operational in the event of another government shutdown.
“I’m going to keep fighting to make sure it’s funded because the demand for these programs has not gone away. And to me this is one of the ways we repay our veterans for sacrificing for us,” Braley said. “These programs are one of the best ways I know of to say thank you.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.