Legion panelists make case for just one GI Bill

Seven different chapters of U.S. Code provide veterans education benefits. On Aug. 1, the Post-9/11 GI Bill – Title 38, Chapter 33 – became the seventh. Panelists at an American Legion roundtable discussion in Louisville, Ky., agreed that’s too many programs for VA to administer, and for military personnel and veterans to understand.

The new GI Bill, which removes a $1,200 “buy-in” requirement, is an improvement in many ways over the Montgomery GI Bill (Chapter 30), but not in every way, says Jim Bombard, chief of the New York State Division of Veterans Affairs, Bureau of Veterans Education. “It’s a good structure, but it’s kind of an elitist structure,” he said, noting that the new benefit is limited in the areas of on-the-job training, apprenticeships and distance-learning.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill can only be used at institutions of higher learning. The Montgomery GI Bill, however, can be used for other types of training. “An electrician, a plumber, a police officer – they all should have the same benefits as those who go to a traditional college campus,” Bombard says. “It should follow the World War II model. I realize cost is an issue, but they said the same thing about the first GI Bill.”

The American Legion drafted the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (the original GI Bill) and fought for its passage, including securing the necessary vote to move the bill out of committee. In the following years, about eight million World War II veterans earned college educations, got high-paying jobs and bought homes of their own. The 1944 GI Bill is now widely credited as one of the most important pieces of social legislation of the 20th century.

Through the years, different versions of veterans education benefits have been signed into law. Last year, some lawmakers decided that 21st-century veterans needed to be better accommodated. The American Legion worked closely with Sen. James Webb, D-Va., to draft the new GI bill. But, says Bombard, a Legionnaire and former chairman of the Veterans Advisory Committee on Education for VA, “we need to close the loopholes. We need to go back to the Senate, back to the House, and get them interested in it again.”

Bombard and others at the session said the $1,200 buy-in should be removed altogether. Servicemembers may choose Chapter 33 to avoid the buy-in, only to discover that vocational training is not covered after their separation from the military.

He added that the Montgomery GI Bill provides better benefits for students getting online degrees.

Joe Sharpe, director of The American Legion Economic Division, added that military personnel need clearer information at the points of enlistment and discharge. He said transition assistance programs should be mandatory for all personnel nearing separation. Reception battalions should also be required to clearly explain differences between the benefit packages.

“The number one issue I am dealing with is transferability,” said Joe Dablow, from the Office of Military and Veteran Student Affairs at the University of Louisville. He said many veterans are unaware that they had to be on active duty as of Aug. 1, 2009, to qualify for the transferability benefit, or that different branches have different criteria for transferability.

Dablow says universities are now focusing on “one-stop enrollment shops” for veterans and providing their growing wave with a place on campus, “where the veteran student can come and work on admissions, financial aid or anything else”.

The session was held just before the 91st National Convention of The American Legion, the nation’s largest veterans service organization.