Chairman eyes steps to ‘modernize’ GI Bill

By Tom Philpott: Military Update

Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., chairman of House Veterans Affairs Committee, wants active duty veterans to have more “flexibility” to use Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB) benefits. He also will consider making Reserve MGIB benefits “portable” so they can be used after reservists leave service.

But Buyer hasn’t endorsed that second change, or any part of an ambitious plan to “modernize” MGIB from a consortium of veterans groups called the Partnership for Veterans Education, a senior committee aide explained.

Buyer’s comments at a Feb. 8 hearing on the Department of Veterans Affairs 2007 budget request had left some reserve advocates with a different impression.

“I welcome ideas and proposals such as one made by the Partnership for Veterans Education led by retired U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Norb Ryan,” Buyer said. “The Montgomery GI Bill, as good as it is, does not reflect the realities facing today’s service members, especially those in the Guard and Reserves. We must modernize the GI Bill.”

Buyer wasn’t available to comment on what MGIB changes he supports. But Mike Brinck, staff director of the veterans’ affairs subcommittee on economic opportunity, provided the modest details.

Buyer, he said, wants to encourage more MGIB enrollees to use their benefits by allowing them to cover training costs for a wider variety of jobs. For example, the law now allows accelerated payment of benefits for short-term, high-cost technical training. Buyer wants accelerated MGIB for some non-technical jobs too, such as training to become long-haul truck drivers.

Also, Brinck said, Buyer wants to study how Reserve and National Guard recruiting and retention might be impacted if Reserve MGIB benefits are readjusted so they can be used after reservists leave the military.

Brinck said Congress enacted Reserve MGIB in 1977 to be a recruiting and retention tool. Reservists commit to an initial six-year obligation and then can draw some MGIB benefits as long as they remain in a drill status.

“Would (breaking that link) add to or subtract from the ability of the Guard and Reserve to recruit and retain their people? That has yet to be determined,” Brinck said.

A far more sweeping plan to modernize Reserve GI Bill benefits is being pushed by a consortium of veteran groups and service associations called the Partnership for Veterans Education. It’s led by retired Vice Adm. Ryan, president of the Military Officers Association of America. MOAA’s deputy director for government relations, Bob Norton, has been briefing Congress on details of the partnership’s plan, called the Total Force MGIB.

The plan, he said, is to recognize the changed nature of Reserve and National Guard service. As of Wednesday, 124,500 Guard and Reserve members were mobilized, most of them to Iraq and Afghanistan. Several hundred thousand more already have been to war. The “weekend warrior” image is gone. But Reserve education benefits haven’t been enhanced to match the sacrifice and commitment, Norton said.

“The idea that this small minority of Americans who are defending us in the war on terror don’t get a GI Bill they can take with them into civilian life, even though they serve in combat and on active duty, is ludicrous and patently unfair,” Norton said.

The Total Force MGIB plan calls on Congress to combine statutory authority for both active and reserve GI Bill programs under the Department of Veterans Affairs (Title 38 of the U.S. Code). This would mean moving Reserve GI Bill programs from the Department of Defense and shifting oversight responsibility to the VA committees from armed services.

The plan also calls for simplifying MGIB benefit levels and features into three tiers. One would be active duty MGIB. Benefits for full-time students are $1,034 a month for 36 months of college or qualified vocational training.

Tier two would be Reserve MGIB for drilling members who sign for six years. But Reserve MGIB would be raised to equal 47 percent of active MGIB and kept there. Norton said for years Congress did adjust Reserve MGIB in lock step with active duty MGIB, staying at 47 percent of active duty rates. Since 1999, the armed services committees and Defense officials have been inattentive, he said. As a result, the current Reserve benefit for full-time students is $297 a month, or just 29 percent of active duty MGIB.

Tier three would be MGIB benefits for activated reservists but with changes to the Reserve Education Assistance Program (REAP) that Congress enacted in 2004. Technical problems had delayed full implementation of REAP. The first checks will go to thousands of waiting reservists this month.

Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: milupdate@aol.com