New GI Bill pays full tuition for more vets

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Within a few months, the U.S. government will pick up the tab for Josh Galiyas to attend the University of Pittsburgh.

Thanks to a deal reached last week between President Bush and Congress, a new GI Bill calls on U.S. taxpayers to pay the $21,000 in tuition it takes Galiyas, an Iraq War veteran, to attend classes during the fall, spring and summer terms.

“I’m pretty excited,” said Galiyas, 25, of the city’s Crawford-Roberts neighborhood. The former Army staff sergeant served with the 101st Airborne Division during the U.S. invasion of Iraq and spent 13 months in Kuwait and Iraq beginning in February 2003.

“I can’t wait to take advantage of it,” said Galiyas, a sophomore studying administration and justice. “I deserve it.”

Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation agrees. All 19 representatives voted in favor Thursday of the GI Bill championed by U.S. Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., a Vietnam veteran. The bill, expected to cost $63 billion, would be funded over 10 years.

Sixty-four years ago today — June 22, 1944 — President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act into law.

Penned by Harry Colmery, a past commander of the American Legion, the GI Bill offered up to $500 a year in college tuition — at a time when Stanford University’s annual tuition was $460 — and guarantied home loans to the soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen returning from World War II.

“The ultimate effect was to propel individuals from the working class and lower class into the middle class,” said Ronald H. Spector, a professor of history and international affairs at the Elliott School at George Washington University, in Washington. “It was the first time for a large number of people to go to college, buy their own homes and start businesses.”

Former Mississippi Rep. Gillespie V. “Sonny” Montgomery spearheaded the most recent revision of the GI Bill in 1984. That law offers a fixed monthly stipend based on length of service, combat deployment and whether the service member was in the regular armed forces or the Reserve.

Webb’s bill would pay full tuition and fees for the state’s most expensive public university. All veterans who have served a minimum of three years since Sept. 11, 2001, would be eligible for full benefits. Unlike previous versions, Webb’s bill would extend the same benefits for members of the regular ranks, the Reserve and the National Guard.

It would be the first time any version of the GI Bill put Reserve and National Guard vets on the same benefit level as regular, full-time armed service members.

More than 1.7 million have served in the military since Sept. 11, 2001, said Maj. Nathan M. Banks Sr., an Army spokesman based at the Pentagon. Of those, about 483,000 have served in the Reserve and the National Guard.

“Our Reserve and National Guard (members) have taken on a different role than prior to 9/11,” said Kimberly Hunter, Webb’s spokeswoman. “They are being deployed overseas and serving side-by-side with active units and face multiple deployments.”

Reserve and National Guard vet benefits currently are based on the longest period of service as opposed to cumulative service, Hunter said.

“This means that if you’re sent to Iraq three times, only your longest deployment would count towards your benefits,” Hunter said.

About 385,000 vets are eligible for the added benefits under Webb’s bill out of the 500,000 vets using the Montgomery GI Bill, said Josephine Schuda, a Department of Veterans Affairs spokeswoman in Washington.

“That’s pretty nice,” said Shawn Bronson, 23, of Mt. Washington, a Point Park University senior studying film. The former Army National Guard sergeant served in Iraq for 12 months starting in June 2005. “It’s definitely a big issue.”

Bronson’s benefits provided him about $7,900 a year in tuition when he went to school full-time, he said. As a part-timer now, he gets about $5,500 a year from the government. The disparity between a National Guard benefit amount and a school’s tuition often makes the choice for the vet on where to go to school.

“A lot of people say, ‘I want to go to Penn State,’ ” Bronson said. “But I’m only going to get $5,500.”

Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, supported Webb’s bill, so those like Bronson in the National Guard, or the Reserve, who have fought in Iraq or Afghanistan are paid back in the same way as those in the regular armed services.

“We’ve had a backdoor draft in this country for years now,” Doyle said. “Some of the people who signed up for one weekend a month and two weeks during the summer are now on their third deployment in Iraq and aren’t eligible for the same benefits. That’s wrong.”

Another aspect of Webb’s bill is a major reason Bush agreed to sign it: Vets can transfer education benefits to family members.

Bush and some Republican senators, including presumptive GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a decorated Vietnam vet, pressed to include that benefit.

“This legislation will build upon the GI Bill’s historic legacy of ensuring brighter futures for service members and their families,” said White House spokesman Blair C. Jones.

Opposition to Webb’s bill focused on the generosity of its education benefits. Critics worried that Webb’s bill would not provide enough incentives for military personnel to re-enlist as the nation continues fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Congressional Budget Office projected the re-enlistment rate would drop 16 percent if the government implemented the Webb bill.

“As our armed forces fight a war on two fronts, we must do everything we can to maintain and encourage re-enlistment,” McCain said in a statement the day the review was released. “Unfortunately, (Webb’s bill) could greatly harm retention rates in our all-volunteer force.”

A bill McCain cosponsored with Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Richard Burr of North Carolina allowed service members to transfer education benefits to family members and would have paid a maximum $1,500 for college tuition and up to $1,000 for books. After 12 years of active duty, the tuition stipend would jump to $2,000 a month. That bill died in the Senate last month.

The American Legion supported Webb’s version, said Joe March, spokesman for The American Legion based in Indianapolis.

“We worked hard for its passage,” March said. “Those provisions have been earned and are deserved and needed.”

Ron Conley, director of the Allegheny County Veterans Services, agreed.

“I don’t think this is going to be the card that drives people out of the military,” Conley said. “Recurring deployments and being away from your family would be more of a reason to get out of the service than (Webb’s) GI Bill.”

Sarah Neyer, 25, a former Army sergeant who served three years, including five months in Iraq in 2003 in Iraq as a chemical-operations specialist, suggested Webb’s bill could help re-enlistments.

“Making a better situation for soldiers in general might keep people in,” said Neyer, who graduated from Carnegie Mellon University last month and begins a doctoral program in mechanical engineering this fall. She spoke by phone from the Aberdeen Testing Center in Maryland, where she is researching human-robot interaction.

“People will be able to see an effort by the government that soldiers are going to be taken care of.”