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Commission Proposes Overhaul of GI Bill, Transition Aid

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 21, 1999 – Imagine serving four years on active duty and then getting a full college scholarship -- and $400 a month to live on.

That's the reward a congressional commission would like a grateful nation to give its men and women in uniform. The 12- member panel -- all military veterans -- would also like service members returning to civilian life to receive subsidized temporary health care and other improved veterans benefits.

The Congressional Commission on Service Members and Veterans Transition Assistance conducted a two-year review and issued its report to Congress Jan. 14. Panelists proposed major changes to the Montgomery GI Bill and the military's transition assistance program. The Defense Department will be assessing those recommendations in coming weeks, according to a DoD spokesman.

Anthony Principi, commission chairman and former head of the Department of Veterans Affairs, said the panel's review of veterans' benefits was the most comprehensive since President Eisenhower asked Gen. Omar Bradley to study veterans' needs in the 1950s.

Congress set up the commission in 1996 to review benefits and services available to active duty members and veterans, Principi said. It also asked the panel to review relationships among federal agencies administering the programs to determine if consolidating program management would improve effectiveness.

He said a review was needed to reflect changes since the original GI Bill became law in 1944 and subsequent veterans legislation was passed in the 1980s. "We've seen dramatic changes in the size and makeup of our military," Principi said. "Our economy has shifted from heavy industry to service and technology. Health care has changed in our country rather dramatically."

The commission visited over 40 military installations around the world, talking to thousands of service members and family members, the chairman said. The panelists also held numerous hearings and meetings with government policy makers, employers and military and veterans service organizations. "We wanted to make sure we got it right for the 21st century," Principi said.

The panel learned health care, employment and education are foremost on service members' minds. "Almost 60 percent of the force today is married," he said. "Many have children. There are a relatively large number of single parents. As they leave the military, their concern is for health care. What do I do until I get that first job? How do I provide health care coverage for myself and my children?"

And finding civilian jobs is not easy for returning veterans, according to the panel. Despite the fact that recently discharged service members are trained, skilled, disciplined, dedicated and drug-free, Principi said, almost 20 percent of those aged 20 to 24 are unemployed -- a rate higher than their nonveteran counterparts.

"We found that to be totally unacceptable," he said. "This cohort of people spent four, eight, 12 years in the military -- whatever it might be -- and now leaving the service should have a higher employment rate. Instead, service members have difficulty finding suitable employment.

"We spend an awful lot of money in this country -- almost $200 million a year through the Department of Labor -- assisting these young men and women to get jobs. Obviously, it's not working and the system needs to be reformed immediately," he said.

If employment is the door to success for transition, Principi noted, then clearly education is the key to that door. "Education is the most important benefit that we can provide to active duty people in this high-technology, information age if they want to get good jobs," he said.

The panelists ran into some hard truths when they explored veterans education benefits, he said. Under the current program, service members contribute $1,200 of their first year's pay to enroll in the Montgomery GI Bill. Principi said about half of those who contribute fail to use their benefits. "That needs to change," the chairman said.

The commission looked at why service members forgo their benefits. "The monthly stipend is insufficient to allow them to go to school," Principi said. The cost of a good education has risen dramatically since the Montgomery GI Bill became law in 1984, he said, and the nature of education has changed.

"Young people can go to a computer program or a network engineering course that may be six months or 12 months in length. That compressed and accelerated course of education costs a good deal of money, yet under the current structure of the GI Bill, veterans only get so much per month. It's simply not workable," he said.

While many young people cite education as the reason they join the military, the commission found that increasingly more of them see the military as a detour rather than as a route to college.

"That's not hard to understand," Principi said. "With Pell Grants and Stafford Loans and state college programs, you really have to do little more than breathe to be able to go to college in America today.

"What does that say to young men and women who devote four years of their lives, incur the risks and sacrifices inherent in military service and yet perhaps are not be able to go to school because the benefit is not sufficient? We believe military personnel certainly deserve to be treated equally, if not better, because of their sacrifices."

The commission recommended Congress pass legislation for the government to pay for honorably discharged members with four years on active duty to attend any school in America for which they qualify. The panelists said the scholarship should cover full tuition, fees and books, and provide a $400 monthly stipend. The four-year service clock would start on the enactment date of the new law; members already on active duty at that time would qualify by re-enlisting or extending to satisfy the four-year requirement.

This would "truly be a readjustment benefit for military personnel," Principi said. "First and foremost, it would allow them to go to the best schools in America for which they qualify and aspire to. Secondly, it will broaden the military to a far greater group of American youth, individuals. High-quality high school graduates who are college bound will now see the military as a way they can truly be all they can be after four years of military service."

The commission also proposed that service members who stay on active duty and don't attend college or other schooling be allowed to transfer their education benefits to their dependent spouse or child.

For Montgomery GI Bill participants, the commission proposed increasing the monthly stipend and providing accelerated payments for certain schooling. Principi said he met a young service member in Korea who was separating and wanted to go to a school that would cost $5,000 for six months. Because his Montgomery GI Bill entitlements are parceled monthly, however, they'll pay only a small portion of his educational expenses.

"We think that's wrong," he said.

The panel also recommended repealing the $1,200 contribution, both for the new GI Bill and the Montgomery version. "So, after the date of enactment, service members would no longer have to make that $100 a month contribution," Principi said. There'd be no refunds of past contributions, but no future payments either.

Along with enhancing recruitment and retention, he noted, these proposed changes would impact all of America. "Look at the World War II experience and what that GI Bill did. It built modern America. It built a generation of great leaders," he said. "Those young service members returning from World War II had the opportunity to attend the best schools in America."

Today in government, business, unions, media and academia, there are fewer and fewer people who've served in the military, he said. "[Our] recommendation will allow today's service members to go to the best schools in America. It will give them the incentive to do well and the aspiration to attend America's elite schools."

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