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Congress tries to fix GI Bill for reservists

Nov. 7, 2007 - 12:10AM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 7, 2007 - 12:10AM  |  
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A bipartisan bill to fix a glitch in GI Bill eligibility that has denied thousands of National Guard and reserve members the right to bigger education benefits has run into an unexpected hurdle a $33 million price tag.

At issue is a fluke in a law intended to make Guard and reserve members eligible for GI Bill payments at active-duty rates if they were mobilized for a minimum of 20 months in support of a contingency operation. Members of a Minnesota National Guard unit discovered in July that after 22 months of duty, including 16 in combat, they were ineligible because of the wording of their mobilization orders.

The bill, HR 3882, is aimed at correcting this problem.

When the unit returned last summer, 1,162 members of the Minnesota National Guard's 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division, were found ineligible for active-duty GI Bill benefits because their mobilization orders did not clearly state they were being call up for 730 or more days, one of the criteria used to determine eligibility.

The bill would fix this, retroactive to Sept. 11, 2001, by modifying the wording so it would apply to someone called up for any period of three years or less. Unchanged would be the requirement to serve 20 continuous months of active service and to pay a $1,200 enrollment fee to receive active-duty GI Bill benefits, which are about $200 a month more than reserve GI Bill benefits for those with less than three years of active service.

Lawmakers had hoped to quickly pass the bill, but the cost estimate would slow things down.

Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., the chief sponsor of the bill and a former member of the Minnesota Guard unit, said he never imagined the bill would have any cost because he considered it a fix to a flawed law that was never intended to treat people differently based on their orders.

"The only possible added expense to the government would come if they had been planning to shortchange people again and this bill would stop them," Walz said.

Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., the House Veterans' Affairs Committee chairman, said he and other committee members are looking for a way to pay for the legislation if they cannot get the Congressional Budget Office, which estimates costs for pending bills, to change the price tag. The $33 million figure is the estimated cost over 10 years.

One immediate effect of the cost dispute is to delay work on the bill. Supporters had hoped to pass the measure as part of their pre-Veterans Day package of bills aimed at current and former service members, but now will have to wait, Walz said.

Walz said the 2,447-member Minnesota unit was mobilized for 22 months, including 16 in combat, and learned only after returning home that the way their orders were written would make a difference in who received the more generous active-duty GI Bill benefits.

The Army has acknowledged the problem, and has offered relief on a case-by-case basis if Guard members apply to the Board for Correction of Military Records to have their orders modified. About 60 percent of the 1,162 affected troops have applied for and received relief, Walz said, but changing the law would be a permanent solution that would prevent this from happening in the future and would help people who are unaware they can get more benefits if they file an appeal.

Rep. John Boozman, R-Ark., one of the veterans' committee members pushing for quick action, said he is "very disappointed" with the Army for not taking care of the Minnesota Guard troops through administrative procedures. Army officials had claimed they were barred by law from amending orders after the fact to make everyone who deployed eligible, but Boozman said the Army never responded to his request to show him any existing law that prevented a fix.

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