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Vets Drum Up Support for GI Bill

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/webb3.jpgSen. James Webb (D-Va.) (WDCpix)

Under blustery skies in the nation’s capital, lawmakers joined scores of veterans Tuesday to drum-up support for a bipartisan proposal granting full tuition benefits to those returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Sponsored by two Vietnam veterans, Sens. James Webb (D-Va.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), the bill would cover the full cost of in-state public tuition, room, board and supplies, while encouraging private institutions to help 21st-century vets with their education bills. In contrast, the current benefit — the Montgomery GI Bill — is capped over four years, leading critics to argue that it’s insufficient to cover the ever-rising expense of a secondary education.

Congress_3601.jpg
Congress_3601.jpg

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

The bill would also extend full education benefits to members of the National Guard and Reserves.

Webb, who fought with the Marine Corps in the Vietnam War, called the expanded education benefit “the most tangible thanks that our country can offer” to those volunteering to fight overseas.

Supporters are confident the proposal will succeed this year. Bolstering those hopes, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said he wants to bring the bill to the floor before Memorial Day.

But, despite the support of more than half the Senate, the bill could become mired in election-year politics. While both contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination have endorsed the proposal, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the shoo-in for the GOP presidential nomination, has refused to do so. Under fire from veterans groups for that position, the former Vietnam prisoner of war has sponsored an updated GI Bill of his own. It provides post-9/11 vets with a larger monthly stipend than the Montgomery Bill, but retains the capped model. McCain’s bill also offers larger benefits to troops serving beyond 12 years, encouraging retention.

Webb on Tuesday downplayed the significance of McCain’s reluctance to endorse the more comprehensive proposal. “I don’t think we need to draw any lines here,” he said.

But on Tuesday, McCain took to the Senate floor to blast the Webb-Hagel bill (S. 22) for discouraging troop retention — a central fear for an all-volunteer military already stretched thin by two on-going conflicts.

“While I don’t think anyone disagrees with the overall intent of S. 22,” McCain said, “I believe we can and should do more to promote recruitment and retention of servicemen and women.”

Backing that assertion has been the Bush administration, which shot out a letter to McCain’s office Tuesday outlining the reasons it opposes the Webb-Hagel bill. Chief among them, the White House says the proposal doesn’t allow service members to transfer their benefits to family. Also, the administration contends, it would encourage troops to hang up their boots to pursue educations.

“Our first objective is to strengthen the All-Volunteer force,” reads the letter, signed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates. “Accordingly, it is essential to permit transferability of unused education benefits from service members to family … Transferability supports military families, thereby enhancing retention. Second, any enhancement of the education benefit, whether used in service or after retirement, must serve to enhance recruiting and not undercut retention.”

The McCain bill hinges transferability on the longevity of service, allowing service members to transfer up to half the benefits after six years of duty, and the full benefits after 12 years. Webb spokeswoman Kimberly Hunter said the Webb-Hagel bill “instead recognizes that a comprehensive benefit is deserved to all veterans who have served their required term of duty — not just those who plan to make a career of military service.”

Supporters of the Webb-Hagel bill also reject the retention criticisms, arguing that any problems with retention related to an enhanced education benefit would be overshadowed by the recruitment the benefit would promote.

“I share concerns about retention in this time of war,” said Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee and a veteran of World War II. “We cannot retain those who we can’t recruit.”

All sides agree that the Montgomery Bill, drafted during the relative peace of the Cold War, falls short of what Iraq and Afghanistan vets deserve. The current benefit grants veterans $1,101 per month — or less than $40,000 over four years — far less than the total costs for even the typical state school, which are roughly $65,000. Critics say it leaves vets struggling to make up the difference. “The current benefit is a complete failure,” said Derek Blumke, president of the Student Veterans of America.

Under the Webb-Hagel bill, vets would receive tuition reimbursements as high as those needed to cover the most expensive state school. In recognition of the expanded role the National Guard and Reserves have played in Iraq and Afghanistan, the proposal would also provide identical benefits to those service-members.

The Senate bill has picked up the support of 58 lawmakers, including 11 Republicans. An identical House bill, sponsored by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), has been endorsed by 250 members, including 71 Republicans.

“This should not be about partisanship,” Hagel said. “It should not be about anything other than making this a better world.”

Veterans groups say that, six years into the Afghanistan conflict and five years into Iraq, the full tuition benefit is the least the country could do to reward the troops’ service. Marine Corps Reservist Evan Aanerud, an Iraq War veteran now studying engineering at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, said he was enticed into the military in part due to the promised education benefits. But the current GI Bill is paying him only $282 per month, he said.

“After putting my life on the line for my country,” said Aanerud, “it would be nice to receive the benefits we were led to expect.”

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