Tuesday, May 13, 2008

USA Today On Veterans Benefits

Vets Deserve Better Benefits, But Don't Drain The Military
USA Today
May 13, 2008

To put himself through Virginia's Radford University, Chris House works 35 hours a week at a local Pizza Hut. During summers, he takes a second job as a farm hand.

Despite those jobs, House will owe about $15,000 in college debt when he graduates next year. His would be just another story about a struggling student, except for one thing: House, 25, is an Iraq war veteran who served with the 82nd Airborne.

Aren't vets like House supposed to get college paid for when they leave the military?

That's how it worked under the fabled GI Bill of 1944. Eight million World War II veterans got an education under a generous program that covered tuition, fees, books and some living expenses.

Today's education benefits don't go as far. Veterans receive about $1,100 a month when they are in school, enough to cover about 60% of the costs of the average four-year public college. Although there's widespread agreement in Washington that the benefits should be improved, opinions differ over the form of the improvements.

The most popular approach, championed by Sen. James Webb, D-Va., and leading veterans' groups, would give vets about $2,000 for every month spent in college, or enough to cover the most expensive four-year public university. Veterans would also receive $1,000 yearly stipends for books and a $1,000 monthly housing allowance.

This is an appealing package, particularly in an election year and at a time when servicemembers have borne the brunt of the burden in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are only two problems with it: It's not affordable, and it would worsen the volunteer military's already serious problem with retention.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimates the plan would cost $51.8 billion in the next 10 years, piling a costlier entitlement program onto the nation's already unsustainable mountain of debt.

Moreover, the generous benefits in the Webb approach would lure 8,000 soldiers a year out of the Army, a top Pentagon manpower official says. Although those same benefits might attract 2,000 more soldiers, that still leaves a 6,000-soldier gap that could cost $100 million a year in new retention bonuses to fill.

An alternative approach, backed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and the Bush administration, is more closely tailored to the needs of today's volunteer military. Veterans leaving active service would see their monthly education benefits rise to $1,500, enough to cover the average public university. To boost retention, this plan would allow members who served six years or more to transfer part or all their post-service education benefits to a spouse or child. There's no official cost estimate for this alternative, but government analysts had calculated that such a program would run $1 billion to $2 billion a year.

That's a more reasonable price tag, but given the nation's $400 billion annual deficit, it, too, needs to be paid for. In this case, the first place to look is the Pentagon's own bloated weapons procurement programs, such as the Navy's new coastal combat ship, which are riddled with cost overruns.

War veterans such as Chris House have made great sacrifices to serve their country, and they deserve more help to further their education and get on with their lives. Now it's time to ask taxpayers or defense contractors to sacrifice a little so that can happen.

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