Moral Reserve

Jeremy Wilson entered the Minnesota National Guard less than a year before September 11, 2001. He wanted to find a way to serve as his grandfather had in World War II while still getting a college education. During the first few years of his service, he served a tour in Italy. Now, he's serving an extended tour in Iraq. Between training for deployment and the time spent overseas, he's spent more than half his time in the Guard on active duty -- which means he barely had time to finish college.

He had hoped to enter law school this fall. Then came the announcement of the surge, and Wilson was one of the thousands of troops who received notice that they would be serving longer or more tours of duty in Iraq. Law school would have to be delayed yet again.

Wilson, who is a family friend of mine, is getting what even his National Guard commanding officers have called "a raw deal." Many of the troops now "surging" into Iraq are reservists -- troops that, before the war, mostly served weekend duty and took advantage of the Montgomery GI bill to help pay for college or trade school.

When Wilson finally returns from Iraq and leaves the Guard, he'll be stuck footing the bill for law school. Reservists must remain in the National Guard in order to use the GI bill benefits, while Wilson's active-duty counterparts have up to ten years to use their benefits after leaving the military.

Reservists were designed to be part-timers who could lead both a civilian and a military life. But with the war in Iraq entering its fourth year, the line between reservists and active-duty troops has become increasingly blurred. Some reservists are serving tours equal in frequency and length to those served by active duty members. The differences now are mainly in the benefits they receive.

Members of the Selected Reserve (which includes both Reserve and National Guard) forfeit their education reimbursement benefits the moment they leave service. This may seem logical -- they did sign up for a different kind of service, one that would allow them to attend college while serving. But in light of the fact that they now serve similar amounts of time overseas as active-duty soldiers, the inability to obtain education benefits after leaving the service seems unfair.

The benefits a reservist receives are based on his or her longest tour of duty; the formula does not count multiple tours, partially because before the Iraq war there was no need for reservists to serve multiple tours of duty. So in 2004, the Congress passed legislation to establish the Reserve Education Assistance Program (REAP), which provides greater education benefits for Selected Reserve troops mobilized in Iraq and Afghanistan for more than 90 days. But these benefits, like all other education and health benefits provided to the National Guard and Reserve, disappear the day a person leaves service. Soldiers sent home due to injury or illness before the 90-day minimum, however, still qualify for 40 percent of REAP benefits.

"[J]ust like an active duty member who completes a two year active duty service obligation, a member of the Guard or Reserve can choose between receiving benefit payments under REAP at $860 per month or the active duty benefit at $873 per month," said Lieutenant Colonel Ellen Krenke at the Department of Defense. In some ways the REAP benefit is better because when Selected Reserve choose to go with the G.I. Bill benefit, they often have to take a reduction in pay to compensate for the education benefit.

Senator Blanche Lincoln, a moderate Democrat elected to the Senate in Arkansas in 1998, recently introduced legislation to expand the reservists' military benefits, making them "equitable" to those afforded active duty soldiers. The legislation would allow education benefits to be determined by the total length of time spent on tour instead of the longest individual tour length. The legislation would increase the amount of education credit proportionally with active duty members. Reservists would get 10 years after leaving service -- the same amount of time given to active duty members -- to use their education benefits.

"I don't think anyone can ague with what we're trying to do," Lincoln said. "When these people come back, they're going to need time to rebuild and find jobs."

The bill is supported by bipartisan co-sponsors, including senators Susan Collins and Norm Coleman -- Republicans who face tough general races in 2008. Similar legislation was introduced in the House by Lincoln's fellow Democrat and Arkansan, Representative Vic Snyder.

The proposed legislation advocates channeling these additional education and health benefits through the Veterans Administration, which handles the requests of active duty soldiers, instead of the Department of Defense, which currently handles education benefit requests for reservists. "The Pentagon thinks this is a retention benefit," Snyder said. But in his view, this will actually help recruitment, enticing more Guard members to volunteer for active duty, because they will be eligible for even better education benefits.

Snyder, like many moderate Democrats, is a deficit hawk -- he even has a running tally of the national debt on his official website. He knows that by advocating for more benefits he's talking about potential cuts or taxes elsewhere. "That's why we need to find out how much it will cost," he said.

The Armed Services committee, where Snyder is a ranking member, held hearings last month to debate this topic. In his testimony, Snyder mentioned two of his staffers, both members of the National Guard who served tours in Iraq. One, who is still enlisted, will get education benefits for graduate school. The other, who didn't re-enlist, doesn't have an option for grad school. "That hardly seems fair," Snyder said, since they both risked their lives in Iraq.

Although the driving forces behind the legislation are moderate and conservative Democrats, this is the kind of legislation that liberals should be lending their full-throated support. It's the kind of bill that can pass easily and be touted as a bipartisan effort, even if it encounters some pushback from the Pentagon. Furthermore, the funding debate could shift to a focus on providing support through education benefits for the troops, rather than diverting funds to extend tours for the surge.

Meanwhile, Wilson and many of his fellow reservists will return from Iraq sometime this summer or fall, and legislators should be ready to have an answer for him. Will former members of the Selected Reserve be able to secure a promising future with education benefits, or will they only be able to do so by re-enlisting -- at the risk of being sent overseas for yet another tour?

Kay Steiger is an editorial assistant at the Prospect.

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