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Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits key to recruiting and retention

WASHINGTON -- Proposed changes to the Post-9/11 GI Bill would improve military readiness, a senior Pentagon official said July 21 at a Capitol Hill hearing.

Robert E. Clark, assistant director for accessions policy in the office of the defense undersecretary for personnel and readiness, also said education benefits are crucial to military recruiting and retention efforts during his testimony before the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs. Mr. Clark discussed the Post-9/11 Veterans Education Assistance Improvement Act of 2010 and how it would affect the Department of Defense.

One of the more notable options in the bill is transferability. It gives career servicemembers who have served on active duty or in the selected reserve on or after Aug. 1, 2009, the option to transfer their education benefits to family members, Mr. Clark said. Transferability was approved in the Post-9/11 Veterans Education Assistance Improvement Act of 2008, which became law in June 2008.

Panel members are debating that option for the 2010 bill. Some say transferability shouldn't be available for every servicemember, because of budget constraints. Rather, the option should be reserved for specific military specialties that are difficult to fill, they said.

"We had concerns about the generous benefit being more of a draw for first-term members to leave (the military) in order to use this benefit," Mr. Clark said. "(But) we were very pleased to see the transferability ... to share this benefit that (servicemembers) have earned with their family members.

"We did not believe this benefit for family members was to be limited to any specific targeting," he continued. "We believe that every Soldier, Sailor, Airmen and Marine who chooses to stay should have the same opportunity to share their earned benefits with their family members."

Money for education remains a top reason for young Americans to join and stay in the military, Mr. Clark said. Transferability and the 9/11 GI Bill will help Pentagon officials meet their recruiting and retention goals, he added.

"There is no doubt that the Post-9/11 GI Bill will continue to have this impact, and we are seeing that happen with unprecedented recruiting success," he said in his written testimony.

Other proposed changes include new rules for entitlement, modifications of the amount and types of assistant covered, methods of education payment and transferring unused benefits.

The proposed bill would enhance provisions of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, as well as make improvements in other Veterans Affairs Department education programs, Keith M. Wilson, director of education service for VA, said at the hearing.

The proposed bill also clarifies eligibility for reserve component troops. Troops activated for training and other purposes in support of reserve component forces or in support of contingency operations qualify for the bill benefits, Mr. Wilson said. Also full-time citizen-servicemembers and members activated for national emergency responses are eligible, he added.

Individuals released from active duty for medical or hardship conditions must be released under honorable conditions, Mr. Wilson continued.

"The amendments regarding qualifying Title 10 service and extending coverage to Guard members ... would be consistent with qualifying active service under the Montgomery GI Bill and the Reserve Educational Assistance Program," he explained in his written testimony. "The proposed amendment clarifying that certain service must result in an honorable discharge is similar to the honorable discharge requirements applicable to other covered individuals."

Regarding tuition payment under the proposed bill, VA officials would pay fees based on charges reported by the institution. That would include out-of-state tuition, as well, Mr. Wilson said.

For foreign or private institutions, VA officials would pay fees according to statistics obtained from the Department of Education. The figures used would be of the "average of established charges at all institutions in the U.S. for a baccalaureate degree for the most recent year," Mr. Wilson explained.

Meanwhile, he said, the housing stipend will be calculated based on attendance in school. This means, for example, students enrolled in 50 percent of a full course load will receive 50 percent of the stipend.

Also, housing stipends under the proposed 2010 bill will expand to vocational schools, correspondence training, on-the-job training and apprenticeships and flight schools. Stipends are based on the area's housing allowance rates for an E-5 with dependents, Mr. Wilson said.

VA officials support streamlining the tuition-and-fee benefits for students attending public institutions and establishing a maximum payment cap private school students, he said.

"The manner in which institutions assess charges varies widely from state to state and from school to school," Mr. Wilson said. "VA also does not object to expansion of the program to permit payment for vocational, flight, correspondence ..., subject to Congress identifying appropriate (cost savings)."

Additional amendments in the proposed bill include the types of methods VA officials use to pay various institutions and training facilities. Although they support the intent to improve the Post-9/11 GI Bill, they do not support some of these provisions, Mr. Wilson said.

These provisions would "severely hamper" payment methods, Mr. Wilson said, as the bill's amendments would take effect as if the 2008 bill never existed. VA officials propose to postpone "significant changes" to the law until Aug. 2011 to ensure the improvements don't have negative impact on service delivery, he explained.

Since the inception of the 2008 legislation, VA officials have awarded nearly $4 billion to more than 295,000 veterans and their education institutions, Mr. Wilson said.