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With the Post-9/11 Veterans Education Assistance Act of 2008 signed into law June 30, military members and veterans crave information on whether, when and how they will gain access to the richer education package, known also as the Webb GI Bill or the Webb-Hagel GI Bill.

Keith M. Wilson, director of education service for the Veterans Benefits Administration, gave refreshingly direct and detailed answers during a Military Update interview July 2.

Wilson said the VA also has a pamphlet on the new GI Bill posted at its website, www.gibill.va.gov, and a toll free number, 1-888-GIBILL1, for follow-up questions. Here are highlights of his comments:

Post-9/11 Benefits — The first thing active members, reservists and veterans should know is that, to qualify for the new GI Bill, they must have served at least 90 consecutive days on active duty since Sept. 11, 2001. “Whenever you stand up a program like this, Congress draws the line somewhere. They drew it at 9/11 for this one,” Wilson said.

Active service of 90 days to six months since 9/11 entitles a member to 40 percent of the new benefit. Longer service delivers a larger percentage. And those with at least 36 months’ active duty since 9/11, or those who have been separated since then for disability after serving at least 30 consecutive days, earn full Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits.

One Benefit, Three Payments — Under Webb-Hagel, the VA will pay a qualified student’s tuition and fees directly to any college or university, up to a maximum amount which is equal to the cost of attending their state’s most expensive public college or university.

This is very different than payments under the Montgomery GI Bill which go directly to students and stay level across the country. A fulltime MGIB student draws the same $1101 a month whether attending a junior college, where he or she might be able to pocket some benefits, or a high-priced private school where MGIB covers only a fraction of actual costs.

The Post-9/11 plan also will pay a new monthly living allowance directly to students, equal to the local rate of military Basic Allowance for Housing for a married E-5. Students will get this whether living in a dorm or off campus. It will not be paid for online courses or to students on active duty most of whom already draw a housing allowance.

The third payment under the Post-9/11 GI Bill is $1000 a year for books and supplies. This stipend will be paid in equal parts at the start of each semester, Wilson said. He estimates that total Post-9/11 benefits in their first year will have an average value of about $2100 a month.

Effective Date, Retroactivity – Sens. Jim Webb (D-Va.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), in designing their Post-9/11 package, agreed to give VA until Aug. 1, 2009, to implement the benefit. Their goal to make the more generous benefits retroactive to the day the bill was signed by the president, which was June 30, 2008, apparently didn’t survive final rewrites. Wilson said Post-9/11 benefits will take effect in Aug. 1, 2009, but will not be paid retroactively to the date of enactment.

Transferability – This feature will allow longer-serving members to transfer unused education benefits to spouses or children. It was added during final deliberations with the White House as a retention tool. It will not be offered to anyone already retired or separated. It will only be offered to members on active duty or in drill status on or after Aug. 1, 2009. So that also is the earliest date any Post-9/11 benefits can be transferred to a family member. “That’s a key distinction,” Wilson said, “because a lot of folks out there believe that, as of today, they can transfer their GI Bill benefits to dependents. That is not the case.”

The new law says transferability can be offered to members with at least six years of service who agree to serve at least four more years. But it also gives the secretary of defense authority to change those requirements or even to elect not to offer transferability if it proves to be an ineffective for keeping retaining quality service members.

“The key here is that the Department of Defense determines eligibility…My understanding from DoD is that they do want to widely offer this to anybody who will qualify,” Wilson said.

MGIB Improved – Though the Post-9/11 GI Bill is a year away, MGIB benefits are being raised 20 percent on Aug. 1, 2008. So a full time student will see the monthly benefit jump to $1321. Thereafter, benefits will be raised yearly to match rising costs of a public college education.

Post-9/11 benefits will be the richer benefit for most college students. A “yellow ribbon” feature, described in earlier columns, will even allow academically qualified students to attend some of the most expensive schools in the country. But MGIB could be the better deal for college students in areas where rents are low and tuition costs are modest or waived for in-state veterans. Also, Post-9/11 benefits can only be used toward an associate’s degrees or higher. Only MGIB or reserve MGIB will cover vocational training.

Hurdles Removed – In final rounds of deliberations over the Post-9/11 GI Bill, Wilson said, lawmakers removed every hurdle toward a smooth implementation that VA officials had identified by last May.

So how would he now describe the new GI Bill?

“My first response would be that it was a long time comin’,” said Wilson. “This is something veterans have clearly earned and it’s really a great honor to be part of implementing a program that is going to be making such a significant difference in veterans’ lives.”

To comment, e-mail milupdate@aol.com, write to Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA, 20120-1111 or visit: www.militaryupdate.com


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