Attendees of Friday’s Government Affairs General Session at the 16th Student Veterans of America National Conference in Nashville, Tenn., were served a healthy dose of inspiration, history, vision and unfinished business about the GI Bill and their other VA benefits.
Certainly, most of the post-9/11 student veterans gathered in the Presidential Ballroom of the Gaylord Opryland Convention Center were pursuing their futures with help from GI Bill education benefits. Those benefits have varied through the decades since the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 was drafted and pushed to passage by The American Legion to serve veterans of World War II. Nearly 8 million veterans took advantage of that first GI Bill’s offer of tuition-free college, credited as one of the most important socio-economic developments in U.S. history. The Post-9/11 version, first passed in 2008 to better accommodate 21st century veterans and education landscape, and modified multiple times since, continues to deliver opportunities and results for “the special 1% who voluntarily decided to serve our great country,” American Legion National Commander Daniel J. Seehafer told more than 1,000 who attended the session.
“Thanks to improvements made through the Post 9/11 version, we again have a GI Bill worthy of the name,” Seehafer said. “Veterans can now transfer education benefits to family members, which was not the case for the World War II version. The Harry W. Colmery ‘Forever’ GI Bill (named for The American Legion past national commander who was chief architect of the original) removed restrictive usage deadlines.”
Seehafer said work continues to make the benefits package fairer, including the Legion’s push to “seek parity in benefits available to National Guard members and Reservists, who – like their active-duty counterparts – sacrifice and risk their lives in service to our nation, too.”
Joining Seehafer on the stage for that session of the 16th SVA NATCON was VA Secretary Denis McDonough, who pleaded with the young veterans to make the most of all their VA benefits and services, including disability claims, mental health resources and employment, as well as education.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has had a massive footprint at the conference, with a veterans claims clinic set for all three days of the event and multiple information desks at the SVA “campus” exhibit hall.
“This year, we are taking up an entire row of booths covering nearly everything we do at VA – claims, mental health, military spouse employment, VA hiring and more,” McDonough said. “If you have any questions at all about any of our work at VA, come talk with my VA teammates. They are here to help with any question you might have, and some you might not even know you have. We even have a mobile Vet Center parked right outside. The holiday season can be a uniquely challenging time for veterans, their families and, frankly, for all of us. That’s natural. If you find yourself struggling, you need not struggle alone.”
McDonough said the Vet Center was there for confidential visits by any student veteran or supporter. He also urged anyone in need to use the 24-hour Veterans Crisis Line. “If you are ever in crisis, or if you know a veteran who is in crisis, please dial 988 and press 1. Let’s work together to ensure that we all get the mental health support that we need, and that we deserve.”
On the employment front, McDonough asked the student veterans to “consider making a career at VA. Each of you has already demonstrated your commitment to your fellow vets by building veteran communities on your campuses. You can keep doing that work, keep improving VA at doing that work. There is no more noble mission than ours – caring for America’s veterans, their caregivers and survivors. We want you at VA. We need you at VA.”
The secretary added that a modernized “digital GI Bill” is soon on its way, in part to replace a “50-year-old I.T. system that still processes your education payments. These upgrades will make the GI Bill more efficient and modern than it has ever been. These improvements will hold VA and our vendors more accountable to delivering for you. These improvements will improve automation, making it easier for you to apply for, and receive, your education benefits.”
The new system will also allow veterans easy access to their GI Bill information and steps in the transition journey, he said. “That will put you in the driver’s seat so you can manage your own experience, quickly accessing your information and achieving your vocational and career goals … When it comes to your GI Bill, you shouldn’t have to worry if you are going to get paid on time. You shouldn’t have to worry about platforms talking to one another. When it comes to any VA benefits or services, you shouldn’t have to worry. Our duty is to keep you at the center of everything we do, meaning we worry for you … adapting to you and your needs, rather than expecting you to adapt to us. You’re building new families, careers and communities after military service, all while going to school. If we’re going to keep our promise to you, we need to meet you where you are, when you need us, without exception.”
McDonough also told the students that the PACT Act – landmark legislation signed into law in August 2022 that acknowledges more than 20 adverse health conditions as service-connected due to toxic exposures – has led to more than 1.3 million disability claim filings and more than 5 million screenings. However, he added, “We’ve got a lot of work left to do, especially with the cohort of vets that you all represent – the post-9/11 vets. Younger vets trust VA less than your older counterparts, and you’re applying for benefits and care at lower rates. That could be for a number of reasons. It could be that we lost your trust. It could be that you want to not take something from your battle buddy. But let me tell you, the most important thing that you might be able to do for your battle buddy is to file your story in a claim, because the more we know about you and your service, the more we know about the people deployed with you. So, please file those claims.”
He said that in March, all toxic-exposed veterans will be eligible to enroll directly for VA health-care services under the PACT Act, “including any veteran who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Gulf War or any other combat zone after 9/11. This means that millions of additional veterans will have the opportunity of getting access to VA health care. And even if you don’t need this care today, you might need it tomorrow or the next day, or 30 years from now, and once you’re in, you have that access for life. We want to serve you. We want you in our care. And we will not rest until we have you in our care. So, please apply for your VA care benefits (and) re-apply if you’ve been denied before.”
American Legion department service officers were also on hand, along with VA claims specialists, at the conference to help student veterans file for their disability benefits.
The VA secretary rounded out his remarks by explaining that when the World War II veterans came home, they changed the paradigm for veterans pursuing higher educations and advancing in civilian lives. “Settling down in communities around the country, colleges and universities saw their immense potential. Here’s the thing: vets make the best students. The leadership. The tenacity. Creative problem-solving. Dedication to truth, to one another, that they learned on the battlefield … is unrivaled in the classroom, unrivaled in public life, unrivaled in business.”
Seehafer put it this way: “Your military experience, combined with your academic success, should make you a true asset and credit to whatever career field follows. If you find a calling that you love, stick with it. One of the most attractive attributes of our military branches are the thousands of jobs that you can hold. From computers to aviation to law enforcement, there is something for everybody.
“As national commander of The American Legion, it’s not surprising that I believe that the United States has the best military in the world. I just as strongly believe that our military veterans make the top students in the world, as well.”
Also addressing the student veterans in the Government Affairs session were Department of Education Assistant Secretary Roberto Rodriguez, Veterans of Foreign Wars Executive Director Ryan Gallucci and Global War on Terrorism Memorial Foundation President Michael Rodriguez.