GI Bill for Life Deserves National Support

May 25, 2008

Washington, D.C.— As you read this, the U.S. Congress is working to strengthen care and services for veterans, including stronger GI Bill benefits. Congress recently passed landmark legislation to provide post-9/11 veterans with comprehensive education benefits championed by Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) and with broad bipartisan support in both the House and Senate. If signed into law by the President, members of the military who have served on active duty since 9/11 will have full tuition and fees at state universities fully paid for, in addition to other new benefits.

For more than six decades, the GI Bill has helped generations of veterans afford college or vocational training so they can get a good job once they leave the military. But the GI Bill currently on the books is out of date for our 21st century veterans and it needs to be reformed. This Memorial Day, we must renew our commitment to veterans, and that includes helping them get the education they need in a 21st century economy.

The GI Bill provides up to 36 months of benefits for college, technical or vocational courses and a host of other training and apprenticeship opportunities. But under current law, active-duty participants have only 10 years from the day they leave the military to access the education benefits they have earned. Active reserve enrollees have 14 years until benefits expire—a roadblock that comes too soon for many.

According to the most recent statistics, 80 percent of eligible service members enroll and contribute part of their salary to the program, but only 59 percent use some or all of their benefits before they expire. Many veterans can’t return to school immediately or even within the first several years after leaving the service. Many must postpone school to support their families, and many face lengthy rehabilitations from service-related injuries. Others choose to gain experience in the workforce first and need further education down the road. Some veterans start using their education benefits, but are unable to complete their degree before they run out.

That’s why we have introduced the Montgomery “GI Bill for Life” Act in Congress to remove the expiration date on GI Bill benefits and make sure all our veterans can use the benefits they have earned. This legislation would allow our service members and veterans to get the education and job training they need when the time is right for them. The debt we owe our nation’s veterans doesn’t come with an expiration date, and neither should their GI Bill benefits.

We know that the Montgomery GI Bill opened the door to higher education for millions of service members and veterans who wouldn’t otherwise have had the chance to pay for college. Now, in the 21st Century – an environment in which enhanced skills, education, and job training are critical to employment, with 40 percent of all job growth requiring some form of postsecondary education by 2010 – we must ensure that veterans always have this door open to them. When our soldiers return home from Iraq and Afghanistan, they should have increased access to the educational and training opportunities afforded by the Montgomery GI Bill.

As part of veterans legislation passed by Congress, the time period for GI Bill benefits would be extended from 10 to 15 years, giving active-duty veterans five more years to get the education they need. This is a positive first step, and we will work with our colleagues to see it signed into law. We will also continue our work to pass the Cantwell-Larsen GI Bill for Life to remove time limits on education benefits entirely.

Tom Noel, a Veterans Employment Representative in Bellingham, is one of many veterans who first encouraged us to introduce the “GI Bill for Life”. Tom says that almost every day on the job, he meets an unemployed veteran who needs more education to get back into the workforce. But because too many years have passed, these servicemen and women are unable to use the benefits they earned putting their lives on the line for our country.

As a nation, we have a responsibility our nation’s service members and veterans, including the more than 16,000 veterans of Whatcom County. Part of this responsibility means ensuring veterans can use the education benefits they earned and deserve.