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02-06-07, 08:24 AM #1
Veterans’ advocacy groups working to improve GI Bill
Veterans’ advocacy groups working to improve GI Bill
Lawmakers back plan to beef up reservists’ benefits
By Rick Maze - Staff writer
Posted : February 12, 2007
Military advocacy groups are working with Congress to make improvements in GI Bill benefits this year — and the biggest question they face is how far to reach in their effort.
The Partnership for Veterans’ Education, made up of almost 50 military, veterans’ and education groups, has a basic plan that focuses on making benefits more equitable for National Guard and reserve members, especially those who have been mobilized.
They’ve already sold some key lawmakers on their plan.
Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee; Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Ark., chairman of the House Armed Services personnel subcommittee; and Rep. Stephanie Herseth, D-S.D., chairwoman of the House Veterans’ Affairs economic opportunity subcommittee, have signed up as sponsors for an ambitious plan that would consolidate active and reserve GI Bill benefits into a single program, raise reserve benefits to make up for years of eroding value and provide post-service benefits for reservists who now lose their entitlement when they separate.
Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., has agreed to sponsor similar legislation in the Senate.
The plan was introduced late in the congressional session last year and is being tweaked, partnership members said.
Snyder said the top priority is to allow Guard and reserve members who have been mobilized to use GI Bill benefits after they separate from service.
Unlike active-duty members, who have up to 10 years after separation to use their GI Bill benefits, reservists can use theirs only as long as they stay in a reserve component.
“That isn’t right, and we need to fix it,” Snyder said.
The Defense Department opposes any change, arguing that allowing Guard and reserve members to use their benefits after getting out could cause an exodus. But a compromise might be reached.
At current rates, full-time students using Reserve GI Bill benefits receive up to $309 a month. A compromise could reduce that post-service benefit by 25 percent.
Another priority, Snyder said, is to restore the value of Reserve GI Bill benefits, which have kept pace neither with rapid increases in tuition costs nor with increases in the value of active-duty benefits.
When the modern GI Bill was born in 1985, reserve benefits were worth about half those given to active-duty troops, but they are worth only about 27 percent of the active-duty benefit today.
The main reason is that the Defense Department, responsible for reserve benefits, has not shown interest in large increases because it views the GI Bill as a recruiting tool that, like most recruiting programs, is not designed to attract people with critically needed skills.
The Department of Veterans Affairs, responsible for the active-duty GI Bill, sees education as a transition benefit rather than a recruiting incentive and has been willing, under pressure from Congress, to accept large increases in the active-duty benefit.
Because the Pentagon is unwilling to foot the bill for bigger Reserve GI Bill benefits, the education partnership is pushing a plan to shift control of that program to VA. That might help, but only if supporters can find money to pay for the bigger benefits in a VA budget already seen as too small by many veterans’ organizations.
Snyder also is interested in dropping the $1,200 enrollment fee that active-duty members — but not reservists — must pay to qualify for GI Bill benefits. The fee, collected in $100 installments during the first year of service payroll deductions, has been a sore point for service members since it was established, and military and veterans’ groups have tried, without success, to get it removed.
Other lawmakers also have ideas about improving the GI Bill.
The “holy grail” of proposals — one that would be very costly — is a bill sponsored by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., that would pay full tuition plus a $1,000 monthly stipend for college education, similar to the original World War II-era GI Bill of Rights.
Webb’s bill also would drop the $1,200 enrollment fee and would give service members 15 years after separation from active duty, not 10, to use benefits.
Also gaining attention is a bill sponsored by Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., a House Armed Services Committee member, which would let troops transfer GI Bill benefits to family members. Transfer rights for GI Bill benefits have been used only on a small scale by the Army as a re-enlistment alternative.
His proposal would allow transfer of any unused portion of education benefits to a spouse or dependent children. Those who transfer benefits would get five additional years beyond the current 10.
Bartlett’s bill also would require annual increases in GI Bill rates to keep pace with rises in college costs, which would result in bigger payment increases than the inflation-matching adjustments that now occur annually, and would allow Guard and reserve members to qualify for the higher active-duty GI Bill benefits after two cumulative years of mobilization in any five-year period.
IN LOVING MEMORY OF MY LATE HUSBAND, SSgt Roger A. Alfano, USMC
ONE PROUD MARINE
Once a Marine...Always a Marine
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