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Pentagon Endorses Transfer of GI Bill Benefits to Spouses, Children

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 15, 2008 – The Pentagon provided proposed legislation to Congress to make it easier for servicemembers to transfer GI Bill education benefits to their spouses or children and to increase the tuition ceiling amount paid by the program, a senior Defense Department official said here today.

The proposal was sent to Capitol Hill on April 21. It reflects departmental desire to improve education and job opportunities for servicemembers and military spouses that President Bush cited in his Jan. 28 State of the Union speech.

The ability for servicemembers to transfer their Montgomery GI Bill education benefits to spouses exists now, but it’s an either/or re-enlistment option, with most servicemembers choosing bonuses when they sign up for another “hitch,” Bill Carr, deputy undersecretary of defense for military personnel policy, said during a conference call with military analysts. Army spouses routinely say that obtaining education benefits is one of their top concerns, Carr noted.

“The law (allows transferability in limited circumstances,” Carr explained. “Specifically, you must have six years of service completed and agree to [serve] four more.

“But, that’s not what limited it,” he continued. “What limited it was that it was presented as an option along with other incentives.”

The Pentagon’s proposal, he noted, removes the limiting requirement for re-enlistment of at least four years.

Another proposed bill before Congress, Carr said, recommends that servicemembers and veterans receive education benefits similar to those included within the initial GI Bill that was used by nearly 8 million veterans after World War II. President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced the GI Bill in 1944, which provided full tuition as well as a monthly living allowance for military veterans who opted to go to school after receiving honorable discharges.

But today is a different time and circumstance, Carr said. The rationale for the original GI Bill, he explained, was that the end of the war would release millions of veterans into a job market that couldn’t absorb them. When war erupted in Europe in 1939, the United States had a 17-percent unemployment rate; its economy was still gripped by the Great Depression that had begun a decade earlier.

The current Pentagon-endorsed proposal on Capitol Hill recommends increasing the GI Bill tuition ceiling from about $1,100 a month to about $1,600, Carr said. That figure, he said, dovetails with current average college tuition costs.

According to recent studies of military manning requirements, the re-introduction of original GI Bill-type education benefits would scramble the Army’s personnel system, Carr said, and cause an exodus from the ranks. The Army would lose 8,000 soldiers a year, he said, and it would have to invest an additional $100 million annually for retention incentives. Recruiting would have to be ramped up to make up for the anticipated shortfall, he added.

Re-introducing the old GI Bill “would have a sharp effect on retention and be a shock to the system,” Carr emphasized, adding it would hurt Army re-enlistment rates, now at about 50 percent, when the Army is working to add 65,000 additional soldiers to the force.

The initial GI Bill was used when America had a conscripted military force that had many more members and a much-higher attrition rate, Carr pointed out. With today’s volunteer force, it is necessary that “we should provide a fair education benefit and be attentive to retention,” Carr said, noting extreme care should be taken to retain the noncommissioned officers who form the backbone of the military.

“If we provide the average national [college tuition cost] and then leave it to the veterans to make their choices, that’s not unreasonable, given that we have a competing concern about sustaining seasoned NCOs to lead a larger military,” Carr said.

Before World War II, college and home ownership were mostly unreachable for the average American. Because of the GI Bill, millions of veterans earned college degrees, thus preventing a flood of the post-war job market. Millions of World War II veterans also used their GI Bill benefits to buy houses with federally guaranteed mortgage loans.

By 1947, veterans accounted for nearly half of college admissions. By the time the original GI Bill ended in 1956, 7.8 million of 16 million World War II veterans had participated in an education or training program.

The Defense Department enrolls servicemembers to receive Montgomery GI Bill benefits, but the Department of Veterans Affairs implements and manages the program. The VA pays the tuition bills.

About 97 percent of today’s servicemembers enroll for GI Bill benefits, and slightly more than 70 percent actually use them. That’s the highest usage rate of any GI Bill in history.

“If we retain well, then we have a seasoned force, Carr observed, noting just one in eight servicemembers re-enlisted after their first hitch during the draft era. Today, nearly 50 percent of servicemembers re-enlist after their initial term of service, he noted.

“That matters, because that produces the experience profile that produces the experienced NCOs,” Carr said. “And, with the weapon systems that we’ve bought, that’s all that’s going to work in keeping them maintained and operating.”

In short, providing original-style GI Bill benefits for today’s all-volunteer force would create “an exodus” of servicemembers and “a performance concern” across the military, Carr said.

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