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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, February 27, 2006

Push is on to expand GI Bill

By Tom Philpott

Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), chairman of House Veterans Affairs Committee, wants active duty veterans to have more "flexibility" to use Montgomery GI Bill benefits. He also will consider making Reserve GI Bill benefits "portable" so they can be used after reservists leave service.

But Buyer hasn't endorsed that second change, or any part of an ambitious plan to "modernize" the GI Bill proposed by a consortium of veterans groups called the Partnership for Veterans Education, a senior committee aide explained.

Buyer's comments at a Feb. 8 hearing on the Department of Veterans Affairs 2007 budget request had left some Reserve advocates with a different impression.

"I welcome ideas and proposals such as one made by the Partnership for Veterans Education led by retired U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Norb Ryan," Buyer said.

"The Montgomery GI Bill, as good as it is, does not reflect the realities facing today's service members, especially those in the Guard and Reserves. We must modernize the GI Bill."

Mike Brinck, staff director of the veterans affairs subcommittee on economic opportunity, said Buyer wants to encourage more GI Bill enrollees to use their benefits by allowing them to cover training costs for a wider variety of jobs.

For example, the law now allows accelerated payment of benefits for short-term, high-cost technical training.

Buyer wants accelerated GI Bill for some non-technical jobs too such as training to become long-haul truck drivers.

Brinck said Buyer wants to study how Reserve and National Guard recruiting and retention might be affected if Reserve GI Bill benefits are adjusted so they can be used after reservists leave the military.

A far more sweeping plan to modernize Reserve GI Bill benefits is being pushed by the Partnership for Veterans Education group.

It's led by Ryan, president of the Military Officers Association of America. MOAA's deputy director for government relations, Bob Norton, has been briefing Congress on details of the partnership's plan, called the Total Force GI Bill.

The plan, he said, is to recognize the changed nature of Reserve and National Guard service.

As of Feb. 22, at total of 124,500 Guard and Reserve members were mobilized, most of them to Iraq and Afghanistan. Several hundred thousand more have been to war. The "weekend warrior" image is gone. But Reserve education benefits haven't been enhanced to match the sacrifice and commitment, Norton said.

"The idea that this small minority of Americans who are defending us in the war on terror don't get a GI Bill they can take with them into civilian life, even though they serve in combat and on active duty, is ludicrous and patently unfair," Norton said.

The Total Force GI Bill plan calls on Congress to combine statutory authority for both active and reserve GI Bill programs under the Department of Veterans Affairs (Title 38 of the U.S. Code).

This would mean moving Reserve GI Bill programs from the Department of Defense and shifting oversight responsibility to the VA committees from armed services.

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