VET BENEFITS AS A TOOL?

This Boston Globe article highlights something I observed in a House committee hearing a few weeks ago: The Department of Defense seems to be well aware that the National Guard and Reserve are getting something of a raw deal on education benefits. The buying power of the GI Bill has depreciated greatly over the years, influencing some vets to go for the cheapest, rather than the best choice when it comes to higher education. Guard and Reserve face special challenges because they get a lesser benefit that is only accessible as long as they are enlisted, but with the increasing time and frequency of deployments, collecting on education benefits becomes next to impossible. The thing is, the DoD isn't really interested in making the benefit comparable to what regular troops get because they view it as a retention tool. The reasoning is that if Guard and Reserve can access their education benefit after they leave, the incentive is to leave.

This was reflected in testimony I heard by Thomas Bush, acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for Reserve Affairs, who noted that the DoD wasn't interested in paying for a benefit that wouldn't serve as a retention incentive and, regardless, don't want it to be part of the DoD's budget. (That would shift the cost entirely to the Veterans Administration, something the VA is opposed to because it would make their budget skyrocket.) Interestingly, many veterans groups who testified insisted that education benefits rank quite low on the list of reasons given for reenlisting.

What's frightening is how open the DoD is about its reasons for denying the increase in the education benefit. Their opposition suggests that they don't necessarily view the GI Bill as a grand American institution, but rather a retention mechanism in the same category as signing bonuses. They aren't just opposed to it because of the increased cost (which has been a restriction under paygo rules) but because they don't view it as useful for staffing a war.

--Kay Steiger

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