Tuesday, July 11, 2006

War veterans denied GI Bill benefits

War veterans denied GI Bill benefits
By Ron Martz / Cox News Service

SUMMERVILLE, Ga. — Andy Rowe thought he had life after the Army pretty well figured out before he came home from eight months in Afghanistan in November 2003.

An Army reservist since high school, Rowe, 27, planned to serve out the remaining four months of his military obligation in the inactive Reserve, get his honorable discharge and then use his GI Bill education benefits to go to college, just as his father did more than 30 years ago.

But Rowe soon realized that, despite his time in a combat zone, he didn't qualify for those education benefits unless he remained in the Reserves or Guard.

It's the same for tens of thousands of National Guard and Army Reserve troops mobilized since 9/11 — the largest deployment of reservists since World War II.

When military benefits were updated in 1984 through a law called the Montgomery GI Bill, members of Congress and even the military did not envision reservists being called into active duty as frequently as they are today. The law did not extend full college benefits to citizen soldiers and terminated them once they left the Guard or Reserve.

But since 2001, more than 500,000 reservists and Guard troops have been deployed for homeland security duties or sent to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet when they get home, they don't get the same benefits as those who were active-duty service members.

"Looking at how the Reserve forces are being used now, it really upset me," said Rowe, called up from the inactive Reserves to serve in Afghanistan.

Retired Army Col. Bob Norton is deputy director for government relations for the Washington-based Military Officers Association of America, which is lobbying for an extension of benefits.

"Under the law, [reservists and Guard troops] are veterans for every single benefit except the education benefits," Norton said.

Primary opposition to changing the education benefit for reservists and Guard troops — those on duty one weekend a month and two weeks in summer unless they are called to active duty — is coming from the Pentagon's Office of Reserve Affairs. Pentagon officials fear changes could hurt attracting and keeping men and women who sign up for the Guard or Reserve.

"It has proven to be a very attractive recruiting tool, and its effectiveness as a retention tool is certainly equally important to the Reserve components," Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs Thomas Hall testified in March before the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

The Military Officers Association has helped put together a consortium of about 40 groups and service organizations that represent more than 5.5 million vets — including such stalwarts as the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Association of the U.S. Army and Military Order of the Purple Heart — collectively known as the Partnership for Veterans Education. Several higher education associations such as the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and the American Council on Education also are part of the consortium. Its aim: to try to persuade Congress to provide more equality in education benefits for citizen soldiers.

The group is pushing especially hard for what it is calling the Total Force Montgomery GI Bill. One major selling point of this proposal is the portability of GI Bill education benefits. That would allow reservists such as Rowe to earn credits for education while mobilized, just like active-duty troops do, and then use them after they leave the service.

Current law gives troops who serve on active duty three or more years to collect up to $1,034 a month for 36 months as full-time students. That benefit is available up to 10 years after discharge.

Reserve and Guard troops can earn 60 percent of that, or about $22,000, if they are mobilized for 15 months — the average length of deployment — and then go to school full time. However, they can collect only if they remain in a Guard or Reserve unit. If they go into the inactive Reserve — also known as the Individual Ready Reserve — as Rowe did, or are discharged, they no longer are eligible for education benefits.

"Right now, it's a double standard. They are treating these reservists like second-class citizens," Norton said. U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah) said Marine reservists in his congressional district who were deployed after 9/11 alerted him to the disparity in benefits.

"When I heard about it, I didn't think it was right," Matheson said.

Last year, he co-sponsored with Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) legislation that would enable Guard and Reserve troops who have accrued 24 months of active service within the last five years to be eligible for 100 percent of GI Bill education benefits.

Some unofficial cost estimates of the Total Force Montgomery GI Bill run as high as $4.5 billion for the first 10 years, although the Congressional Budget Office has yet to weigh in with more detailed figures.

Despite its cost, which could become a key obstacle in Congress, the bill now has 140 co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle, including Georgia Democrats John Barrow, Sanford Bishop, John Lewis and David Scott and Republican Nathan Deal.

"This is truly a bipartisan issue because it's about veterans," Matheson said.

The MOAA's Norton said another measure in the works is an amendment offered by Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) to the fiscal year 2007 Defense Authorization Bill.

This amendment would enable Guard and Reserve members mobilized for active duty to use their GI Bill education benefits after they leave military service.

Hall, the assistant secretary of defense who also is a retired rear admiral, told members of Congress that such a change could affect troop retention.

"The fact that a member must continue to serve in the Reserves to maintain eligibility has greatly assisted the Reserve components as a whole in maintaining consistently high retention rates over the years and has increased the education level of our Reserve forces," he said.

But Norton contends that the Defense Department's own survey data show education is not a major factor in an individual's decision to re-enlist or extend in the Guard or Reserves.

Rowe said education benefits he thought he would receive as a reservist were only part of his decision to enlist in 1996, when he was 17 and still a high school junior in his hometown of Summerville.

"My father instilled a true sense of patriotism in me, and I wanted to do something for the country," Rowe said.

His father, Tim, had served in the Air Force and used his GI Bill benefits to obtain an education degree and become a teacher.

Rowe went to basic training between his junior and senior years in high school and then was assigned to a unit — first in Chattanooga, and later in Atlanta — as an information systems specialist. He served nearly six years in the active Reserve force before transferring to the Individual Ready Reserve.

In April 2003 he was recalled to active duty and sent to Afghanistan, giving up his civilian job as a project manager for a telecommunications company.

"All I wanted to do when I came home was get another job and go back to school. But then when I applied I found out I couldn't use the GI Bill so I had to reconsider things," he said.

Rowe now works for Covista Communications out of Chattanooga and said that the issue for him is not so much the money as the principle.

"I don't think there's anything that will be done to help me now, but I think it's something that definitely needs to be done for soldiers in the future," he said.

Ron Martz writes for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.