When Alex Horton shipped home from Iraq in 2007, he decided to go to college and get a degree in journalism. He hoped the new, post-Sept. 11 GI Bill would help him out.
"With my bank account dwindling and rent, utility bills, school tuition and other obligations on the table, coupled with the advice of my VA counselor, I bet it all on the post-9/11 GI Bill. And I lost," Horton wrote at the time on his blog, Army of Dude.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has been the subject of criticism for years: rising suicide rates, inadequate health care, benefit delays. How did VA officials respond to Horton's criticisms? They hired him.
Horton, who now writes for the VA's VAntage Point blog, tells NPR's Rachel Martin that the change was a good thing.
"Being cynical and throwing bombs at a department can only work for so long before you ask yourself: What really can be of use to people?" Horton says. "I didn't see many tangibles that came out of me criticizing ... Before, I was saying, 'Here's the problem. Isn't this terrible?' Now I'm saying, 'Here are some issues. What can we do to fix it?' "
The transition from Army veteran to VA critic began when Horton started his second year of college, and transitioned from the original GI bill to the more generous version passed after Sept. 11. Horton was one of thousands of students who were affected when the VA fell behind on the processing of applications.
"I had no idea when I was going to get paid. I had no idea if the money was on its way. And I had things to think about," Horton says. "I had rent. I had a truck payment. I had a lot of things to worry about, and I couldn't get any answers from VA or the counselors at my school."
Horton's experience with the VA at that time was reflected in his blog posts.
"The VA counselors at my school buy salt in bulk to pour into the wounds of the students they are purported to serve," he wrote in one. "One in particular lambastes me whenever I call with a legitimate question regarding veteran benefits."
Now, however, Horton is more understanding. He concedes that the counselors were overworked and under a lot of stress to try to interpret the new rules.
"Seeing it from another side, and maybe added complexity, made the issues — I won't say easier to understand, but I know how it's a huge bureaucracy and there are some parts that work well and some that need to be worked on," Horton says. "You have a bigger appreciation for what those issues are, and you're compelled to help fix those now."