With Congress adding a $1 billion-a-year transferability feature, President Bush has dropped his opposition to the extraordinary Webb GI Bill initiative and is prepared to sign it into law as early as July.

Known also as the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008, the new GI Bill will deliver to current servicemembers, to many recently separated veterans and to oft-deployed Reserve and Guard members an education benefit never envisioned for an all-volunteer force.

Approved as part of a wartime budget supplemental (HR 2642), the Webb plan is a far richer benefit than the Montgomery GI Bill, but MGIB benefits also will climb, by 20 percent, almost immediately. This will ensure that veterans attending school this fall receive some swift help with education costs. Students who qualify will get retroactive reimbursement of the fuller benefits when the Webb program begins in August 2009.

The plan, conceived by freshman Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., will pay tuition and fees at any college up to amounts charged by the most expensive public colleges in each state. Payments for full-time students will jump from $1100 a month under the MGIB to an average of $1900.

To entice private colleges to participate, a "yellow ribbon" provision allows the government to pay half of any tuition bill in excess of the state school ceiling if the private college will absorb the other half. This could allow veterans to attend most any college or university they can get into.

The new GI Bill also will pay a monthly stipend to cover living expenses. The stipend will be tied to local housing costs by matching Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) payment payable to married members in pay grade E-5. This stipend will not be paid to part-time students.

To win Bush’s endorsement, the House included a transferability feature so that military careerists can transfer unused education benefits to their spouse or children. To transfer a full 36 months of benefits, a member would have to have at least six years in service and agree to serve four more. A member will need 10 years’ service to transfer benefits to children.

The secretaries of Defense and Veterans Affairs would be able to change the years of service requirement for transferability. Similar transferability features could be created for the MGIB for active duty members and reservists.

Transferability adds $10 billion to the 10-year cost of the Webb initiative, raising the total estimated cost through 2019 to $62 billion. Despite objections from fiscal conservatives, the legislation doesn’t require an offset or reduction in other entitlement programs to cover the cost.

Reserve and Guard members will share in the new GI Bill. Those who have deployed for a combined 36 months since 9-11 will earn the same GI Bill benefits paid to their active duty counterparts. Also, future GI Bill benefits automatically will be raised with the cost of public colleges.

Defense officials lauded final House action to insert the transferability feature, saying this was a priority both for the administration and career servicemembers. Some details still need to be worked, including whether members with 10 or more years of service would have to serve for four more years to win transferability.

Defense officials continue to predict lower retention rates from the Webb plan. They intend to monitor the loss rates closely and to use different retention initiatives, as needed, to keep enough seasoned non-commissioned officers and petty officers in service.

The new GI Bill’s effective date of Aug. 1, 2009, is to give the Department of Veterans Affairs time to implement the complex benefit. But VA officials suggest a year is not long enough.

Keith R. Pedigo, a senior VA official, told the veterans’ affairs committees in May that the VA "does not have a payment system or the appropriate number of trained personnel to administer the program." To deploy a new payment system alone would take 24 months, he said.

Pedigo also questioned the Webb plan’s call for lump sum tuition payments to students just before they enroll for class each semester. That could result in large overpayments if students decide not to attend after all.

He also expressed concern that tying the monthly stipend to local housing costs "could prompt some students to enroll in online learning at schools with the highest BAH rates."

The Department of Veterans Affairs has an enormous task at hand to implement the new GI Bill. But active or reserve component members who have served at least three months on active duty since Sept. 11, 2001, soon will have a truly top flight education benefit.

Disabled soldier to be separatedWe reported last week on Army plans to return Spc. Daniel "Joey" Haun to his former infantry unit, which is scheduled to redeploy to Iraq this fall. Wounded by a roadside bomb last August, Haun suffered injuries to his head, arm and ear drum. In May, he was deemed fit for duty.

Haun said he not only was returning to Iraq but faced a "stop loss" order that would keep him there nine months beyond his enlistment contract.

Army officials told Haun, a day after the Military Update column was written, that he will remain with the wounded warrior unit at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, until he is separated from service later this year.

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