WASHINGTON - Alan Fitzpatrick filed for his GI Bill benefits in early August, so he knew his checks might be delayed until after the fall semester started. He put aside enough money to make it by for two months, figuring everything would be processed by then.

Now, almost three months later, he's still wondering where the money is.

"I had to borrow $100 from the school so I could afford gas to get to classes," said Fitzpatrick, a 23-year-old freshman at Lake Land College in central Illinois. "I know other veterans who put their paperwork in the same time as me, and they got their benefits a month ago. But I'm still waiting."

Department of Veterans Affairs officials said that education payouts typically see longer delays at the start of the spring and fall semesters, but this year the backlog is worse than ever.

"We're hearing from a lot of folks who couldn't pay their first month's rent because of the problems," said Michael Dakduk, executive director of Student Veterans of America.

VA officials acknowledged that nearly 58,000 veterans are still waiting for this semester's enrollments to be processed, but said they hope to finish that work by Nov. 2. Nearly half of those are students attending college on the post-9/11 GI Bill.

According to department statistics, the number of pending education benefits claims spiked to more than 330,000 last month, nearly double what that figure has been for September 2011 and 2010. The total number of unprocessed claims hasn't dipped below 100,000 since July 2011, and the number of pending post-9/11 GI Bill claims has also been steadily rising since then.

The education benefits are just the latest backlog headache for the department, which has received heavy criticism in recent years for the growing number of disability claims that take more than 125 days to complete.

VA officials blamed the education payout delays in large part on the growing volume of veterans applying for student benefits. Almost 4 million claims have been filed this year, up 13 percent from last year's record numbers.

For returning students, processing averages 17 days. For new students, it takes more than a month.

The education claims backlog also includes multiple documents and requests for the same veteran, aggravating the problem. Department officials in a statement apologized for the problems and said processors are "working to remedy any issues as quickly as possible."

Lacking VA long-term fixes to the backlog problem, SVA officials said they're petitioning colleges and local communities to find ways to help student veterans continue their studies.

Last week, the group asked for more schools to consider no-interest loans to veterans for books and housing, to be repaid when the GI Bill benefits are processed. Officials also called for community leaders and outside nonprofits to "recognize the urgency of this issue and offer emergency financial support to student veterans struggling to pay their rent."

Dakduk said the goal is not to excuse the VA problems, "but instead to offer private sector and community-based solutions to an issue that is not going away anytime soon."

Meanwhile, Fitzpatrick worries that the VA delays might force him out of school. College administrators have been accommodating so far, but without his GI Bill living stipend, he and his pregnant girlfriend are struggling.

It's an unexpectedly stressful situation for the Army veteran, who served in Afghanistan in 2008.

"If I get the money soon, I'll be good," he said. "If not, I don't know how I'm supposed to keep doing this."

shanel@stripes.osd.milTwitter: @LeoShane

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