Larsen GI Bill for Life Act Gets Hearing in Congress

Jan 17, 2008

Washington, D.C.— Today the GI Bill for Life Act (H.R. 2247) got a hearing for the first time in the U.S. House of Representatives. U.S. Representative Rick Larsen’s legislation would remove the 10-year time limit on GI Bill benefits to improve education and job training opportunities for veterans.  Larsen, along with Washington state veterans who have worked with him on the legislation, submitted written testimony for today’s hearing in the Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, chaired by U.S. Representative Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD).

“After leaving the service, many veterans who paid into the GI Bill program must postpone returning to school to care for their families or recover from service-related injuries,” said Larsen. “Helping more veterans get a two or four-year degree will be good for veterans, military families and our 21st century economy. The debt we owe our nation’s veterans doesn’t come with an expiration date, and neither should their GI bill benefits.”

The Montgomery GI Bill provides veterans who choose to participate with up to 36 months of benefits for college, technical or vocational courses and other training opportunities. Service members agree to a $100 per month reduction in pay during their first 12 months of active service, for a total contribution of $1,200. While money paid into the program is non-refundable, under current law veterans have a limited amount of time to use their education benefits before they expire. Those who served in active duty have ten years, reservists fourteen years. While approximately 80% of service members contribute to the GI Bill program, only 59% take advantage of their education benefits before they expire, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Larsen’s GI Bill for Life Act, which has been introduced in the Senate by U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), would remove the arbitrary time limit so veterans can access educational and vocational training when the time is right for them.

“Keeping America's workforce highly skilled and competitive in today's global economy means increasing education opportunities and guaranteeing our troops receive the education benefits they have earned and deserve,” said Cantwell.

Excerpts from Written Testimony in Support of the GI Bill for Life:

“…The current job market requires highly trained individuals from accredited institutions.  In addition, there continues to be instability within the workforce due to technological advances that could make a vocation obsolete thus requiring retraining well after the 10-year delimiting date.  For these reasons The American Legion supports eliminating the ten-year delimiting period for veterans to use Montgomery GI Bill educational benefits.”

-American Legion White Paper on the GI Bill for Life

“On paper, ten years appears to be ample time to complete a two year degree or even a four year degree.  However, most veterans, like me are not prepared to go to school directly after exiting the military. Even those who are prepared, and are able to go fulltime or part time, find themselves balancing responsibilities and obligations of life.”

- Dave Fernandez, U.S. Marine Corps veteran from Bow, Washington

“As the Washington State Agency charged with advocating for the 670,000 veterans who call Washington State home, I can tell you it is always difficult when we encounter a veterans who is ready to make a positive change in his or her life by going back to school, but is stopped short because the education entitlement (GI Bill benefit) have expired. We can’t always anticipate what will happen in life and some of our veterans are unable, for whatever reason, to use their benefit within the ten year timeframe.  Repealing the ten year limit will allow these veterans to further their education using a benefit they earned through their service to our Country.”

- John E. Lee, Director, Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs

“Just getting back on your feet after your military career takes years and soon the 10 year deadline for using the GI Bill has passed.  Or, for some, they may be in school when their 10 year limit runs out. But, this does not change the initial investment these veterans made when they paid in their 1,200 dollars nor does it change the gratitude we owe every veteran for the time they have given to protect those we love; to protect our country and democracy worldwide.”

- Linda McGuiness, U.S. Army veteran from Bellingham, Washington

“Many of our members are students at local colleges or state universities…Allowing veterans an indefinite period of time to utilize their benefits earned through service to their country is vitally beneficial to those veterans who may not have adequate health or opportunity to gain a college degree within the current 10 year time limitation restriction.  We believed that allowing a veteran his or her own time to further their education will create many more successful transitions, successful veterans, businesses and families.”

- Tim Nelson, President, Chapter 3, Veterans of Modern Warfare, Bellingham Washington

“As a Local Veterans Employment Representative (LVER), almost everyday I see an unemployed Veteran who needs a little more education to get re-employed. I frequently see a Veteran who needs to change occupations entirely. What a perfect time to go back to school, but that benefit that was earned by putting our lives on the line is no longer available.”

-Thomas G. Noel, U.S. Coast Guard Veteran from Bellingham, Washington

“As returning Vietnam Veterans many of us took advantage of the GI Bill…Over the years veterans had to make a decision either to put food on their table to feed their families or attend college. Those veterans with families had no choice but to go to work and leave behind the education opportunities hoping some day they will be able to return to school. Vietnam Veterans throughout this great nation ask that you remove the 10-year time limitation restriction to allow those seeking to fulfill their dreams to do so.”

- Jim Pace, President, Washington State Council of Vietnam Veterans of America

“To limit a veteran to 10 years after separation from the service restricts the usability of the benefit…If it is a deserved benefit, then why put a time restriction?”

- Stephen Pinello, U.S. Army veteran from Bellingham, Washington

The text of Larsen’s testimony for the record follows:

Good Afternoon.  I want to thank Chairwoman Herseth-Sandlin and Ranking Member Boozman for holding this important hearing.  A number of valuable pieces of legislation will be discussed today concerning improvements and modifications to the GI Bill.  I am especially pleased that we will be discussing the Montgomery GI Bill for Life Act (HR 2247), legislation I have sponsored and I am thankful to have a number of bipartisan cosponsors.  I also want to thank Senator Maria Cantwell for her leadership on this issue and her sponsorship of companion legislation in the Senate.

The GI Bill was established in 1944 as a way of giving back to our nation’s veterans who gave so much to our country during World War II.   Since it became law, this program has helped millions of veterans afford a two or four-year degree. This historic legislation has improved the lives of many veterans, opening doors and creating opportunities for those who served in the military to serve our country in new ways as civilians.    Through the GI Bill, countless veterans have become teachers, scientists and engineers -- to name just a few examples -- and made countless contributions to communities across the country.

For all the benefits of the GI Bill, there are clearly areas which need reform.  Under current law, the vast majority of service members contribute to the GI Bill program, but only slightly more than half take advantage of their education benefits before they expire.  Current law requires that those who served in active duty must use all of their education benefits within 10 years of being discharged. Those serving in the Selected Reserve have 14 years of eligibility to use their GI Bill benefits.

We live in a 21st Century world that requires a 21st Century workforce.  Advances in technology mean that increasing numbers of Americans need more than a high school degree to succeed.  Furthermore, estimates show the average annual earnings of someone with a bachelor’s degree are anywhere from 74 to 87 percent higher than the earnings of someone with a high school diploma.

Many veterans are not able to go back to school immediately or within the first several years after they leave the service.  Many service members 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 in order to advance their careers. Some veterans may be able to start using their benefits within the time frame allowed, but are not able to complete their degree within 10 years.  When the benefits run out, many can’t afford to return to school and are unable to complete their degree.

We must do more to honor our commitment to veterans and help them access the education benefits they have earned. Veterans should not be limited to an arbitrary timeline that prevents them from getting the education and job training they need when they need it.  The GI Bill for Life Act would remove these time limitations and allow our nation’s veterans to use their benefits whenever they see fit.  They paid into the program and they should be able to use the program at the right time in their lives and their careers.

As more and more veterans come back from Iraq, Afghanistan and other areas of the world, we need to give them the tools they need to succeed in the next stage of their lives.  We need to give them every opportunity to transition to civilian life and take advantage of future career opportunities.

I want to thank you again for holding this important hearing and for considering the Montgomery GI Bill for Life Act.  I look forward to continuing to work with you and the other members of the committee to advance this legislation and help give our nation’s veterans the flexibility they need to be successful.