VA benefits adviser

Student veteran Tino Caraballo, left, discusses his financial benefits with Veterans’ Affairs Department Coordinator Stephen Phelps on Friday, Nov. 8, 2013, at Temple College.

Shane Earsland | FME News Service

TEMPLE — As the coordinator of Temple College’s Veterans Affairs Department, Stephen Phelps assists student vets — a busy role given the campus’ proximity to Fort Hood.

The majority of students he advises ended their military careers at Fort Hood and remained in the area to focus on post-military careers, Phelps said.

“By and large, it’s a Fort Hood population,” he said.

Phelps assists student vets beginning with the admissions process and through graduation, with his primary function being to help them understand and use the different veterans benefit programs available to them.

He also helps them arrange their class schedules based on fields they want to enter, which are largely influenced by the industries prevalent in Central Texas.

“A lot of them are doing computer science,” Phelps said. “You have McLane Advanced Technologies here, and government contract work in Killeen.”

Many are studying nursing as well, because of the college’s close proximity to Seton Medical Center in Harker Heights, Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco, and Scott & White Memorial Hospital in Temple, Phelps said.

Tino Caraballo was in the Army 15 years, and his contract job as an air traffic controller at Fort Hood was canceled. He is now studying computer software development at Temple College.

“I’d like to invent the next big thing one day, but I don’t know what that is yet,” Carabello said.

The availability of financial benefits for student vets is essential for them to transition to civilian life successfully. Unfortunately, one such program — the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program — is ending soon. The program provides up to $1,473 per month to qualified veterans who enter a one-year vocational program in certain high-demand occupations.

“It’s going to expire,” Phelps said. “Everybody’s going to lose it spring semester.”

Phelps, a San Diego native who ended his four-year active-duty Army career at Fort Hood, is trying to prepare his students for the end of the program by reminding them to file for financial aid — and any grants available to them — early.

Those who enlisted in Texas can apply for Hazlewood benefits. The Hazlewood Act provides benefits to honorably discharged or separated Texas veterans, and to eligible dependent children and spouses of Texas veterans.

“You have to have joined the military in Texas,” Phelps said. “It’s a total of 150 hours of free college.”

Fortunately, the federal government is no longer having trouble distributing benefits associated with the Post-9/11 GI Bill, Phelps said. Many student vets had their benefits delayed when the bill was enacted in 2009.

“It’s a pretty fast turnaround anymore,” Phelps said. “It’s all automated now, which happened in the past couple (of) years. They’ve automated so much that it decreases the workload of claims processors.”

A VA report showed the department had 5,100 work items pending for the Post-9/11 GI Bill during the week of Nov. 8, which was down from 6,313 the previous week.

Comparatively, the department had 50,213 work items pending the week of Nov. 8, which was down from 64,344 the previous week.

The recent government shutdown affected student vets’ claims, Phelps said.

“Any new claims between Oct. 1 and Oct. 16 were denied,” he said. Phelps did not have any students who submitted claims within that time period.

Spring semester registration began Nov. 4, so Phelps is busy.

Caraballo said he was grateful for the assistance, because it is not always easy for him to decipher the different benefits he is eligible for.

“The problem with grants is, it’s so hard to find all the information to apply for them,” the Puerto Rico native said. “We need a better system for that. With the technology we have, the ideal thing would be for a company to put them all together on one website.”

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