Veterans benefits

Vet students fight for veterans benefits on Capitol Hill

Since 2013, members of the VFW and the Student Veterans of America, or SVA, have had the opportunity to make their voices heard on Capitol Hill.

This year, five student veterans were selected to be part of the VFW-SVA scholarship program, which gave them a platform to advocate alongside VFW representatives on issues facing veterans. Fellows meet with the nation’s legislators and administrators responsible for implementing veterans’ policy in the nation’s capital.

Top: Alex Ortiz was one of five student veterans who participated in this year’s VFW-SVA Legislative Fellowship in Washington, D.C. Bottom: An Army veteran and life member of VFW Post 10011 in Providence, Rhode Island, Alex Ortiz sits aboard a helicopter transiting from Forward Operating Base Salerno in eastern Iraq to Kirkuk Air Base in the north of the country in 2009.

This year’s scholarship recipients were:

  • James-Anthony Burandt, Marine Corps, California State University-Fullerton
  • Thomas Fischer, Army, Syracuse University
  • Natalie Koffarnus, Army, Montana Tech from the University of Montana
  • Alex Ortiz, Army, Rhode Island State College
  • John Randolph, Air Force, Pennsylvania State University

Then-VFW Commander-in-Chief Matthew M. “Fritz” Mihelcic said the 2022 VFW-SVA Fellowship offered veterans the opportunity to “hone their advocacy skills” for issues directly related veterans across the country.

“Keeping our veterans, service members and their families at the forefront of lawmakers’ minds is paramount,” Mihelcic said. “Now more than ever, veteran representation on Capitol Hill matters.”

Each student wrote an essay proposing legislative improvements to one of the following veterans’ issues:

  • Veteran Student Success in Higher Education and Jobs
  • Veterans Health Care and Benefits
  • The transition from military to civilian life
  • Challenges Facing Military Members and Their Families

Ortiz, who while on scholarship attended Rhode Island College in Providence, earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting in May. He is currently working towards obtaining a law degree from the Inter-American University of Puerto Rico.

Ortiz, who medically retired from active duty in 2013 after seven years, said his scholarship proposal changed a provision of the post-9/11 GI bill. The bill, which was signed into law in 2008 after years of VFW advocacy, gives its beneficiaries 15 years to use higher education benefits. Ortiz, a lifetime member of VFW Post 10011 in Providence, said he wants to change that.

“They could have done better drafting the bill,” Ortiz said. “They needed to think about some of the situations that are happening right now before they write any laws that affect veterans’ benefits.”

Ortiz said the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many student veterans to postpone their studies, which he says could prevent veterans from using fully-earned benefits. For Ortiz, the inspiration for his interest in the GI Bill came from a friend. His friend’s experience led Ortiz to fix the 15-year provision in the GI Bill.

“He got a notice from the VA saying he had 22 months left on his GI Bill benefits,” Ortiz said. “He thought he had no more benefits, but he got the notice anyway.”

It was VA’s mistake, he claims.

Ortiz said his friend moved his family to start a new semester of school. However, at the end of the semester, the school told his friend that the GI Bill benefits had expired.

“So he was in a lot of debt, and there was no way for him to cover his household expenses,” the Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran said. “He was counting on this housing allowance.”

Ortiz – who served in Iraq in 2008 and 2009 and in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011 with the 10th Mountain Division – said the bill he proposed will allow anyone who earned the GI Bill and served after the December 10, 2001 (90 days after September 11) could keep their GI Bill benefits longer than the current limit.

Ortiz said working with VFW’s Washington office was an “incredible” experience.

“It was a learning process for me about how bills are negotiated and established, as well as what VFW does for veterans,” Ortiz said. “I was very grateful for the experience. At first, I didn’t know that the VFW was so involved in legislative work in Washington. If you had asked me two years ago what the VFW is, I would have answered: “It’s a place where veterans hang out and have a beer”.

Ortiz added that the whole VFW-SVA scholarship program had “revealed his eyes”.

“The amount of support and resources the VFW has to change veterans’ lives for the better has overwhelmed me,” Ortiz said. “It’s a whole new world that has opened up to me.

SVA veteran students interested in the scholarship can get more information about the program by visiting https://studentveterans.org/programs/vfw-sva-legislative-fellowship.

This article is featured in the August 2022 issue of VFW Magazine and was written by Dave Spiva, Associate Editor of VFW Magazine.