By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES
WASHINGTON — House lawmakers will introduce legislation Thursday to secure college aid for reservists and reimburse veterans whose schools unexpectedly close, as well as do away with a 15-year time limit for veterans to use education benefits – changes that together create the largest expansion of veterans’ education benefits since the Post-9/11 GI Bill was created nearly a decade ago.
The legislation represents an initial deal reached between House Republicans and Democrats, encouraged by veterans organizations that acted behind-the-scenes the past several weeks to reignite support for it. Details were obtained by Stars and Stripes ahead of the Thursday rollout.
Ending the 15-year time limit for veterans to use their education benefits marks a shift from the GI Bill as a generational benefit to establishing it as “forever,” said Will Hubbard, vice president of Student Veterans of America.
“We’ve been extremely vocal about removing the arbitrary 15-year time limit of using this earned benefit,” he said. “It will afford individuals who transitioned and either had a family or went right to work the opportunity to get an education. This gets to that ‘forever’ point because someone who gets out, they have an entire lifetime to use their benefit.”
Hubbard is optimistic the initial bipartisan agreement will lead to the bill’s quick adoption. Republicans and Democrats have compromised on other veterans issues this year that have resulted in new policy, including the creation of a faster firing process for Department of Veterans Affairs workers and an extension of the VA Choice Program.
“All arrows are pointing to us getting this done,” he said. “There’s every indication this is moving, and moving quickly.”
Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and the lead sponsor on the bill, will schedule a hearing on it next week, Hubbard said. Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., the ranking Democrat on the committee, is a co-sponsor.
The chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., told The Associated Press that he would introduce a companion bill. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., also praised the bill to The Associated Press as a major undertaking to modernize veterans’ education benefits.
A bipartisan group of 15 House lawmakers, as well as seven veterans organizations, were scheduled to introduce the bill formally Thursday afternoon.
Just two months ago, the House ceased discussions on GI Bill improvements and postponed a hearing, following a rift between veterans groups about an idea to have new enlistees pay for the expansion with a $100-per-month deduction from their basic pay. Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and the Veterans of Foreign Wars described it as a “tax on troops.”
The expansion is estimated to cost approximately $3 billion.
The bill to be introduced Thursday proposes paying for the expansion by decreasing living stipend payments under the GI Bill to the amount active-duty servicemembers receive.
“It’s common sense,” Hubbard said. “While nobody loves any kind of discussion on that front, there’s a new political reality, and you can’t just make demands of Congress and expect it to get fixed. It doesn’t work like that anymore.”
Student Veterans of America tried to create consensus among veterans groups at a gathering in May, when they agreed on four major changes that are now part of Roe’s legislation.
One change is to expand eligibility for the Yellow Ribbon Program to surviving spouses and children of servicemembers killed in the line of duty. The program allows veterans to attend schools or enroll in programs that cost more than the GI Bill tuition cap.
Another expands full GI Bill benefits to all Purple Heart recipients. Currently, a veteran must be medically retired from the military or have 36 months of active-duty service to qualify. According to the Military Order of the Purple Heart, there are approximately 1,500 Purple Heart recipients who aren’t eligible for full education benefits.
The legislation would also offer tuition reimbursement to veterans whose schools close. Last year, for-profit ITT Technical Institute closed its doors, and thousands of veterans who attended the campuses were unable to recover lost education benefits. Veteran students attending other for-profit schools that have closed have experienced similar circumstances.
The most urgent issue is a fix to a Pentagon deployment authorization that is unfairly preventing thousands of reservists and guardsmen from earning GI Bill benefits, Hubbard said. About 4,700 reservists and guardsmen who deployed under Title 10, Section 12304b have been restricted from accumulating education benefits. Previous efforts in Congress to fix the problem have stalled.
“I get calls every day from individuals who either experienced school closures or reservists who are not getting GI Bill benefits, though they earned it,” Hubbard said. “And it’s heartbreaking to have to take those calls from people you know have earned this benefit, and simply by technical error don’t have access. This is an issue of serious urgency to get this done for those people.”
According to the American Legion, the bill will be named the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017, after a past commander of the American Legion who authored the GI Bill of Rights in 1944.
“This bill... would launch a new era for all who have honorably served in uniform,” American Legion National Commander Charles Schmidt said in a statement. “It would close current gaps in the existing Post-9/11 GI Bill and guarantee that veterans have access to their hard-earned GI Bill benefits beyond the current 15-year time limit.”
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