A plan to increase benefits from the GI Bill by charging newly enlisted service members has been called "unacceptable" and a tax on troops.
Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick, R-8, Middletown, wrote a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan last week saying he could not support a measure proposed by House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Phil Roe, a Republican from Tennessee. Under Roe's plan, new service members would pay $2,400 over two years, or $100 a month, to access the GI Bill's educational benefits.
"GI Bill benefits are critical to successfully reintegrating our veterans into civilian life," Fitzpatrick wrote in his letter. His congressional district includes all of Bucks County and part of Montgomery County. "Charging service-members for access to these essential benefits further shifts the burden of war onto our veterans, who have already sacrificed so much defending our great nation."
The $2,400 fee would generate approximately $3.1 billion in revenue over 10 years and fund expansions to the GI Bill, according to a statement from Student Veterans of America, an organization that supports the idea. In the statement, a spokesperson from SVA says the cost will allow service members to use the GI Bill's educational benefits beyond the current 15-year cap.
"Education is a lifetime pursuit and the greatest empowerment tool for separating service members," said Barrett Bogue, SVA's vice president for communications. "Now is the time to double-down. We’re ready to secure the GI Bill today, so that veterans can use it 20 or even 30 years after they separate."
The SVA is at odds with other national veteran organizations, such as Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, that have strongly criticized the proposal. VFW National Commander Brian Duffy said in a statement that Congress should focus on fighting the United States' enemies and stop going after military benefits.
"This new tax on troops is absurd," said Duffy. "Ensuring veterans are able to successfully transition back to civilian life after military service is a cost of war; and not a fee that Congress can just pass along to our troops. Congress must stop nickeling-and-diming America’s service members and veterans."
Former Air Force Tech Sgt. Dave Dibelius echoed Duffy's sentiments, saying it is unacceptable to charge new service members for access to the benefits. Dibelius is the commander for District 8 of the Pennsylvania VFW, comprised of 20 local posts in all of Bucks County and most of Lehigh County.
"They don't just give out these benefits," said Dibelius. "The troops have fought for our country and earned those benefits with their commitment to serve the military. Personally, I don't support any type of legislation that taxes our troops needlessly."
Dibelius points out that in addition to the honor of serving the country, the educational benefits are a major draw for those interested in joining the military. The new fees could deter enlistment, he said.
"A new service member is already not making a lot of money, less than $1,000 a paycheck," Dibelius said. "However, they know that signing up for the commitment comes with this major educational benefit where they can go to school without the hassle of tuition."
From 1984 through 2008, service members had the option to buy into the Montgomery GI Bill's educational benefits at the cost of $1,200 over 12 months, or $100 a month. The Montgomery GI Bill is still available, and offers a capped reimbursement for college tuition or other job-training programs, such as apprenticeships. The current monthly reimbursement for a service member attending college full-time is $1,857, according to the Department of Veteran Affairs.
In 2008, President George W. Bush signed the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which increased the educational benefits at no cost to active duty service members. Under the bill, veterans who joined the military after September 11, 2001, start accruing eligibility 30 days after enlisting. The longer they serve on active duty, the larger reimbursement service members will receive.
After 36 months of active duty, veterans who are honorably discharged are eligible to receive full payment for tuition and fees for 36 months at a public college located in their home state. They also receive stipends for housing and books. Under Roe's proposal, eligibility for the expanded benefits of the Post-9/11 GI Bill would require the $2,400 fee.
"This is a wartime benefit," said Carlos Fuentes, director of National Legislative Service for the VFW. "It's given in recognition of their service. They are still fighting for our country in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Syria, they deserve the chance to succeed after military service."
Legislation proposing the change to the GI Bill has not been introduced. The plan was originally scheduled for discussion during Wednesday's hearing by the House Veteran Affairs Committee's Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, but that meeting has been postponed with no new date announced.
The subcommittee also planned to consider a package of bills that would bring reforms to the GI Bill. Fuentes said the reforms are much needed and fully supported by the VFW, but the organization does not think payment for those fixes should come from junior service members.
The proposed bills include:
Protecting Veterans from School Closures Act, which allows veterans to recover their GI Bill educational benefits if they used their benefits to attend a college or university that closes, as was the case when for-profit ITT Technical Institute shut down all of its campuses last year.
Veterans TEST Accessibility Act, allowing veterans to be reimbursed for approved licensing, certification and national tests without having payment of the testing fees counted against their educational expenses.
Reserve Component Benefits Parity Act would open Post-9/11-GI Bill eligibility to reservists involuntarily called into active duty.
"While I support efforts to reform and provide flexibility within the Post 9/11-GI Bill, such as removing the time limit cap on use of the program, or expanding support for veterans in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs, these reforms should not be funded by taking away from today’s service members," said Fitzpatrick. "Supporting our troops after they come home is a cost we commit to when we send them to war."