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Oft-Absent Reserve Component Members Endanger Education Benefits

By Col. Henry L. Payne, USA
National Guard Bureau

WASHINGTON, Sept. 17, 2002 – Selected Reserve members who use government-provided education benefits under the Montgomery GI Bill- Selected Reserve but fail to participate satisfactorily during their obligated period of service will have to refund their unearned benefits. Examples of this include service members who excessively fail to attend scheduled training, fail the physical fitness testing or do not complete required military courses.

Congress enacted the Montgomery GI Bill in July 1985 as a recruiting and retention tool for military services. This program continues to be a tremendous incentive program for the services and a valuable benefit for the service members. It provides the services a better-educated service member while assisting the member in the pursuit of higher education.

Reserve component members who enlist, re-enlist or extend in the Selected Reserve for a six-year contract, possess a high school or equivalent diploma and have successfully completed Initial Active Duty for Training are authorized Montgomery GI Bill benefits. However, the law establishes eligibility for MGIB-SR benefits, requiring continuous satisfactory membership in the Selected Reserve during the period of eligibility.

Selected Reserve members are eligible for up to 36 months of MGIB-SR educational benefits once they complete initial active duty for training. They have 10 years to use the benefits but must remain a Selected Reserve member in order to participate in the program. The MGIB-SR program is funded by the reserve components, not the service members themselves. This differs from the MGIB-Active Duty Program, as Congress provides funding to the Department of Veteran Affairs for the program. Additionally, active duty members must elect to participate in the program and are required to have their pay reduced by $100 for the first 12 months of their active duty service.

Most people identify members of the Selected Reserve as service members who typically have attended training one weekend each month and two weeks a year. Reservists who accrue nine or more unauthorized absences from drills over a one-year period are placed into the "unsatisfactory" category. After due process by the commander these members may be transferred to the Individual Ready Reserve and may lose their eligibility for educational assistance under the MGIB-SR.

Because they are no longer members of the Selected Reserve, their entitlements to the Montgomery GI Bill benefits are normally terminated. Such a penalty is specified in law and is a provision of the contract Guard and Reserve members sign when joining the Selected Reserve. When circumstances that prevent a service member from continuing in the Selected Reserve through no fault of the member's, such as civilian job requirements or relocation, family health issues, a one-year absence from the Selected Reserve may be authorized. However, if the service member fails to re-affiliate with the Selected Reserve within the one year, MGIB-SR benefits are terminated and recoupment action, if necessary, will proceed. Once benefits are terminated, they cannot be reinstated.

The collection of GI Bill payments to affected service members is slated to start Oct. 1. The collection action, when necessary, will be through the Defense Finance and Accounting Services and could involve garnishment of wages and assistance from the Internal Revenue Service as part of the collection process.

Improved personnel data management systems and new interagency agreements now enable all the reserve components to better identify, track and request refund of unearned benefits paid to reservists who do not fulfill their contractual obligation. The Naval Reserve has processed these actions manually for some time.

Effective Oct. 1, Selected Reserve members going to school full time under the Montgomery GI Bill will receive $276 per month. Reservists who've used all or part of their educational benefits but failed to complete their service obligation and now have to repay them could owe thousands of dollars, depending on how much of their service obligation they completed.

The intent of MGIB-SR recoupment is to ensure that the service member refunds, as required by law, any MGIB-SR educational benefits not entitled to, based on failure to meet contractual obligations in the Selected Reserve. Rather than recouping the money, the services would prefer to have service members remain in the Selected Reserve and complete their obligation.

(Col. Henry L. Payne is the assistant director for military personnel programs, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs [Manpower and Personnel].)

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