So much for one weekend a month, two weeks a year. Since Sept. 11, nearly 425,000 National Guard and reserve troops have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Like temp workers with no benefits, however, these citizen-soldiers find that when they leave the reserve forces, they are not entitled to the same tuition assistance as regular Army veterans.
To some lawmakers like Virginia Senator Jim Webb, this double standard is unconscionable. The former Navy Secretary and highly decorated Vietnam vet is trying to goad Congress into updating the G.I. Bill, whose benefits have failed to keep pace with the rising cost of a college education, by providing full tuition to a state university plus a $1,000 monthly stipend to all veterans who have served a total of two years in Iraq or Afghanistan since 9/11--reserve forces included. His rationale for extending equal benefits to National Guard veterans: "Same battlefield, same soldier."
Sounds fair, right? Not to the U.S. departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, with each testifying last month that giving all veterans the same benefits could hurt National Guard retention as well as active-duty recruitment. Tom Bush, the Defense Department's principal director of manpower and personnel (and no relation to the President), says that for active-duty service members, tuition assistance is a powerful recruiting tool. In fact, according to a 2004 survey commissioned by the Army, education benefits were the most common incentive cited by young adults considering an enlistment.
Those benefits are also a good reason for National Guard members to keep renewing their commitments. Under the current G.I. Bill, Guard members and reservists who have spent two years in Iraq or Afghanistan get $860 a month in tuition assistance if they attend college full time (compared with the $1,075 a month that active-duty veterans receive), but this benefit ends the moment they leave the Guard. Bush also argues that reservists don't need as much help transitioning to civilian life. "They can go back to their jobs, but an active-duty member is really changing careers," he says.
Aside from retention issues, Webb's bill faces another significant hurdle: cost. The VA estimates that the price tag for improving education benefits for post-9/11 veterans would be $74.7 billion through 2017. Webb counters by pointing to 1944, when the G.I. Bill was expanded to give tuition benefits to all service members who fought in World War II. "Nobody asked these financial questions when they had 8 million returning veterans," he says.
The funding question is worse at the state level. In Missouri a bill that would have significantly cut costs for all vets at state universities stalled in May because state schools pleaded that the proposed benefits would cost them nearly $2 million a year. Says Scott Charton, spokesman for the University of Missouri: "If the state feels that this is a priority, then it's worth it for the state to fund it."
Meanwhile, California's cash-strapped state legislature is debating whether to approve Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposal to start allocating tuition-assistance funds to help boost membership in the 20,000-strong California Guard. Democratic state senator Lou Correa sent a letter to his colleagues this summer urging them to fund the additional benefits for Guard members. "A lot of these guys are losing their jobs, their houses, their cars because they're being called back to Iraq for a third time," Correa says. "Would we try to deny tuition assistance to World War II veterans? What's the difference between those heroes and these heroes?" The answer may be our fiscal priorities.