Deficient G.I. Bill shorts reservist

By Tom Philpott: Military Update

Proponents for strengthening Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB) benefits for the National Guard and Reserve say the critical issue is fairness. Reserve rates, frozen for years, need to be raised. Reserve benefits need to be made as portable as MGIB for active forces, their wartime deployment partners.

Not so, said a senior Defense official. The critical issue is how best to manage finite resources. There is no reason to raise Reserve GI Bill benefits as long as enough personnel join and re-enlist with reserve components.

The arguments were as blunt as that last Wednesday during an unusual joint hearing of the House armed services subcommittee on military personnel and the veterans’ affairs subcommittee on economic opportunity. The two panels share oversight responsibility for MGIB programs.

The Republican chairman and ranking Democrat on the personnel subcommittee — John McHugh of New York and Vic Snyder of Arkansas — were in sync laying out their case for raising reserve MGIB benefits perhaps next year. Snyder in particular sees two major inequities that need correction.

The first, he said, is that MGIB for reservists ends when they separate after a typical six-to-eight-year service obligation. That’s true even now, in wartime, with Reserve and National Guard members being mobilized routinely for 16-to-18 months, and spending a year in Iraq or Afghanistan. When active duty members leave service, they take along MGIB benefits. Reserve benefits can only be used while they remain in drill status.

“How is it fair when two members serve side by side in combat, they return home together, both leave the service, but one will have education benefits (and) the other will not have any?’’ asked Snyder.

“This seems to me to be unconscionable.”

A second inequity is the level of benefits under MGIB for Selected Reserves. Payments used to be set to equal 47 percent of benefits for active duty MGIB users. But cost of living increases to active duty MGIB, which the Department of Veterans Affairs administers and VA committees oversee, have not been applied to Reserve benefits since the attacks of 9/11.

The armed services committees are responsible for Reserve MGIB and so can be blamed for letting benefits slip. But it’s also true, Snyder said, that the Bush administration has not asked for money to adjust Reserve MGIB. On Sunday, when active duty benefits went up once again, Reserve MGIB benefits stayed frozen and their value, relative to active duty MGIB, fell to 27 percent.

“Shouldn’t we at least bring that benefit up to where it was at the time the program was (established),” Snyder asked Michael L. Dominguez, principal deputy under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

Dominguez refused to concede the point, instead providing what he described as “a number-crunching, bean-counter” view. Reserve MGIB was designed primarily as a retention tool to keep members in drill status.

“If we look at our recruiting and retention numbers, we’re achieving the purposes for which the program was intended,” said Dominguez, a 1975 West Point graduate. For five years, until last July, he served as assistant secretary of the Air Force for manpower and reserve affairs.
Following that logic, an angry Snyder told Dominguez, if the Reserve MGIB “deteriorates to 3 percent of the (active duty) benefit … or 1 percent, you’re going to be perfectly satisfied as long as Americans are stepping forward and signing enlistment contracts for reasons for patriotism, family heritage, for love of country. You don’t care where that benefit deteriorates to … I think you stepped in it, Mr. Secretary.”
Dominguez refused to reverse field, however.

“If people understand what we offer in return for their service, and they know that up front and they agree to that service, under those conditions I think that needs to be honored,” he said.