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WASHINGTON - The Department of Veterans Affairs will hand out $3,000 emergency checks to student veterans awaiting overdue GI Bill payments as a stopgap measure to help keep them in college, officials announced Friday.

In a statement, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said the money will be made available starting Oct. 2."Students should be focusing on their studies, not worrying about financial difficulties," he said. "This is an extraordinary action we're taking. But it's necessary because we recognize the hardships some of our veterans face."

Veterans Affairs officials have sent out about $60 million in tuition payouts and living stipends under the new GI Bill benefits since Aug. 1. But that covers only about 10 percent of the more than 270,000 veterans who applied for the new education benefits so far this year.

Currently, the department is averaging 35 days to fully process new claims, and some schools still haven't filed enrollment paperwork to begin that process, VA officials said. As a result, some student veterans might not see their first checks until mid-October or early November, well into the fall semester.

Veterans groups said that has lead to thousands of students taking out short-term loans or racking up credit card debt to pay for school supplies, pay rent checks, or cover other expenses.

On Friday, the executive director of Student Veterans of America praised the department's decision to act quickly to help veterans before they reach financial disaster.

"This is incredible; I'm proud of what the VA is doing," said Derek Blumke. "They've realized what a dire situation this has become, and they're doing the right thing to solve it."

Starting next Friday, students can go to one of 57 VA regional benefit offices to collect their emergency checks. To collect the money - an advance on the education benefits due to them - veterans must bring a photo ID and a copy of their course schedule.

A list of those VA regional offices is available at www.vba.va.gov.In addition, VA has promised to send representatives to schools with large veterans populations to help with the emergency checks, and pledged to work with outside veterans support organizations to help with transportation to the regional offices.

"I'm asking our people to get out their road maps and determine how we can reach the largest number of college students who can't reach us," Patrick Dunne, VA's under secretary for benefits, said in the statement. "Not everyone has a car. Not everyone can walk to a VA benefits office."

The VA did not provide estimates on how many students will request the emergency funds. Claims officials estimated that 25,000 pending files may result in payments to students, but veterans groups said that number could reach as high as 100,000.

More than 27,500 students have already received full or partial benefits under the new GI Bill program.

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