Troop retention affected by GI Bill

By Tom Philpott: Military Update

Defense officials are alarmed by the very real prospect that Congress this year will enact the robust GI Bill education plan designed by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va.

One Defense official, who declined to be named, described the bill as a “retention killer” for the all-volunteer military.

Webb reintroduced his bill, the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act (S. 22), last week with changes that attracted strong bipartisan support, including the endorsement of Virginia Sen. John Warner, former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“I’m just going to go full bore on this thing,” Warner told Military Update in a phone interview.

That’s a worrisome vow for Defense officials who believe enhanced post-service education benefits, particularly if enacted while troops face multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, could trigger an exodus severe enough to put the viability of the volunteer military at risk.

No one disputes Webb’s claim that his enhanced GI Bill would boost recruiting sharply. But a Defense official said it also would encourage thousands of young service members, trained at great expense, to separate after completing their initial service obligation to attend college fulltime.

Webb, in an interview, described such arguments as “absurd.”

The Department of Defense, he said, “is doing a very good job managing its career force, given the strains that are on it. But it’s doing a very poor job of taking care of the people who don’t come in for a career.”

Raising GI bill benefits nearer to those offered to veterans returning from World War II, Webb said, will give every volunteer, particularly those with no intention of making the military a career, “a proper reward for their service” and a great tool for transitioning to civilian life.

Defense officials have to understand, Webb said, that a volunteer military is “only a career system to a certain point.” The current system isn’t properly rewarding those who enter “because of love of country, or family tradition, or the fact that they just want to serve for a while,” he said.

The services, he said, “have got this one demographic group they keep pounding on and throwing money at. Yet there’s a whole different demographic group that would be attracted to coming in and serving a term.”

Webb declined to describe either demographic group in more detail.

His enhanced GI Bill would be available to any member, active or reserve, who has served at least three months on active duty since Sept. 11, 2001. The level of benefits would be tied to length of service. The $1,200 member buy-in under the current Montgomery GI Bill would be returned.

The bigger change would be in the value of benefits. Maximum benefits, earned for 36 months’ active duty, would cover tuition for up to four years at a level to match tuition at the most expensive in-state public school. The average across states is about $1,900 a month. MGIB pays $1,100.

Webb’s bill also would pay a monthly stipend to cover living expenses. The stipend would reflect local housing costs near school and would be set to equal military Basic Allowance for Housing for married enlisted in grade E-5.

A feature added to win Warner’s support would encourage private colleges to make their schools affordable to veterans. Schools that agree to pay half of their tuition in excess of the most costly state schools would see the government cover the remaining half.

Thus academically qualified veterans could attend some of the best schools in the country. Warner said it’s the kind of opportunity he got after World War II using the GI Bill.

The Defense official said that was a different era when the government was worried about long-unemployment lines from millions of returning draftees. A robust GI Bill now would make it difficult to keep careerists.

“Why would anybody stay for another deployment when they can go out on a four-year free ride, with guaranteed rent and utilities at the E-5 standard, which by long-standing DoD policy is a two-bedroom townhouse?”

Given current conflicts, this official continued, even volunteers who like service life might decide “to sit out for a year or two, in a large rented townhouse, and come back when things are more hospitable.”

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