A recruit with Delta Company, 1st Recruit Training Battalion, takes notes during a class for educational benefits Aug. 26, 2015, on Parris Island, S.C.

A recruit with Delta Company, 1st Recruit Training Battalion, takes notes during a class for educational benefits Aug. 26, 2015, on Parris Island, S.C. (Aaron Bolser/U.S. Marine Corps )

WASHINGTON — The Senate passed legislation Wednesday that veteran advocates are describing as the largest expansion of veterans education benefits in a decade. With senators’ unanimous consent, the bill moves to President Donald Trump’s desk to become law.

The measure passed through committees and cleared the House and Senate just 20 days after it was introduced. Among other things, it will end a 15-year limit for veterans to use their education benefits, restore benefits to veterans whose schools abruptly close and fix a Pentagon deployment authorization that has kept about 5,000 reservists from accumulating earned education benefits.

“The folks who experience school closures, survivors of the fallen, Purple Heart recipients and reservists who have all earned the GI Bill and were waiting for so long are finally going to get the benefits and education they so strongly deserve,” said Will Hubbard, vice president of government affairs for Student Veterans of America.

The Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017 -- named after the past commander of the American Legion who authored the GI Bill of Rights in 1944 -- was introduced July 13 in the House and passed through the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on July 19. The House approved it with a 405-0 vote July 25.

It was introduced in the Senate on July 20 and passed the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on July 26.

But the legislation hit roadblocks and was almost never introduced. Negotiations on the legislation, which is a combination of 18 different bills, were halted in April following a rift between veterans organizations over how to pay for the $3 billion that the new measures are expected to cost in the next 10 years.

A public hearing was canceled and discussions ceased. Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., a sponsor of the House bill, said it was almost a “death knell” for the GI Bill expansion.

But the group of veterans organizations that reignited the momentum for a GI Bill expansion set the goal of passing it through Congress before senators left Washington for recess this month. They grew concerned earlier this week when they didn’t receive confirmation from Senate leadership that it would be placed on the Senate schedule for a vote.

Student Veterans of America asked their 25 Kentucky chapters Monday to call the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and request a vote. The American Legion also sent an “action alert” to its members, asking them to contact their senators immediately about the bill.

“To go from being dead in the water three months ago to having this on the way to the president’s desk is nothing short of remarkable,” Hubbard said. “It took a lot of work. We knew a lot of members had an interest, but it was a matter of getting it across the finish line.”

The bill has widespread support among veterans and higher education organizations that celebrated the Senate’s approval Wednesday. They dubbed it the “Forever GI Bill” because of the elimination of the 15-year deadline to use education benefits. That restriction will be gone for veterans who were discharged on or after Jan. 1, 2013. The bill also eliminates the “Post-9/11” from the GI Bill’s title.

“We called for a GI Bill that wouldn’t arbitrarily be taken away 15 years after a veteran leaves the service,” John Rowan, president of Vietnam Veterans of America, said in a statement. “Because everyone from the traditional organizations to the newest stood with us, Congress answered the call.”

Lauren Augustine, director of government relations for the group Got Your 6, said the quick passage was proof that “even a divided nation can come together to support our veterans.”

The bill awards full GI Bill benefits to all Purple Heart recipients and expands eligibility for the Yellow Ribbon Program to surviving spouses and children of servicemembers killed in the line of duty. The program allows veterans to attend schools or enroll in programs that cost more than the GI Bill tuition cap.

It also boosts aid for veterans pursuing science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees and increases payments by $2,300 per year to veterans with less than one year of active-duty service.

To offset costs, the legislation calls for reducing the annual growth of GI Bill recipients’ living stipends to fall in line with active-duty servicemembers’ basic housing allowance. The decrease would not apply to people now using the GI Bill. Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.

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