Possible Changes Eyed for Guard, Reserve Montgomery GI Bill

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 19, 2007 - Defense leaders joined the Minnesota National Guard's adjutant general yesterday in urging Congress to revise the Montgomery GI Bill to improve coverage for reserve-component troops, although they didn't necessarily agree on the best way to accomplish that.

Army Maj. Gen. Larry W. Shellito told the House Veterans Affairs Committee that the bill, as currently written, shortchanges National Guard and Reserve troops.

He noted that nearly half the Minnesota National Guard's 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division, found they weren't eligible for full education benefits under the bill, despite being one of the longest-serving units in Iraq. The unit returned home from a 22-month mobilization that included 16 months in combat as part of the surge force in Iraq.

All the returning "Red Bull" troops were eligible for Montgomery GI Bill benefits, but many fell short of the service time required to receive full benefits.

Among them was Army Sgt. Benjamin Hattan, a two-time Purple Heart recipient who was denied education benefits because his deployment orders were written for up to 729 days. The Montgomery GI Bill requires 730 days of service to quality for full benefits, Hattan explained to the committee.

The Army is working to amend the unit's orders and sent a team to Minnesota to help the Guardsmen wade through paperwork required to apply for benefits. Officials said the Army goal is to complete amendments so the soldiers can receive their benefits for the 2008 spring term.

"The decision to grant these men and women their earned benefits needs to occur quickly in order for them to make important life decisions," Shellito told the committee. "As a key tool in building and maintaining a total Army force, we as well as military leaders also need this to occur, as it is fundamental to sustaining a ready and capable reserve-component force."

Defense Department officials agreed yesterday that changes are needed to the Montgomery GI Bill for the Selected Reserve, as well as the Reserve Educational Assistance Program.

However, both Thomas L. Bush, acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs, and Curtis L. Gilroy, the Pentagon's director for accession policy, said such a measure doesn't fit the program's purpose: to recruit and retain members.

They said they believe the Defense Department can actually be too generous in granting GI Bill benefits. "We have a delicate balance we have to maintain in order to ensure a strong and ready military for America," Gilroy stated previously. "And it is actually possible to upset that balance and hurt our retention by being too generous with some of our recruiting incentives."

Gilroy and Bush said yesterday they disagree with the idea of consolidating the active- and reserve-component education plans into a single "Total Force GI Bill."

"The calls for a single program simply view military service as the pathway to an education benefit, not a program to retain members," they said in a joint statement released to the committee.

Both praised the Montgomery GI Bill for the support it lends to recruiting and retention efforts. "As we move through the 21st century, we must continue to build upon the remarkable legacy of the visionaries who crafted preceding versions and improvements in the GI Bill," they said.

The original GI Bill was enacted in 1944 to provide education benefits for troops returning from World War II. More than 2 million veterans have attended college using GI Bill benefits.

Possible Changes Eyed for Guard, Reserve Montgomery GI Bill [ ]