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Pacific edition, Saturday, July 12, 2009

Because Sgt. 1st Class Tom Simpson of the Maryland Army National Guard has served on active duty almost continually since the 9/11 attacks, he believed he had earned Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits and would be able to transfer them to his 18-year-old daughter who is attending college this fall.

But when full details of the new GI Bill were released in early May, Simpson got a jolt. He isn’t eligible. So his daughter has had to pass on her first choice, New York University, for a college costing $20,000 less a year.

Air National Guard Chief Master Sgt. Bill Scully believed until just two weeks ago that his final two years on active duty, before he retired in November 2003, qualified him for 80 percent of the new GI Bill benefit.

Scully too was mistaken, and he has cancelled plans to continue to pursue a degree in religious studies online through Liberty University.

Like Simpson and Scully, thousands of National Guard members will soon discover, if they haven’t already, that they are the victims, at least temporarily, of a flaw in the new GI Bill. It limits eligibility to Guard members based on what federal law was used to order them to active duty.

Those activated under Title 10 to serve under the command and control of the president for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are eligible for the new GI Bill after 90 days’ deployed. If they serve 36 month cumulative months under Title 10, after Sept. 11, 2001, they get full GI bill benefits.

But the time that Guard members have spent activated under Title 32, -- responding to domestic emergencies or to homeland security missions, or serving fulltime under the Active Guard and Reserve (AGR) program -- will not be count toward Post-9/11 GI Bill eligibility.

Excluded are Guard members called up to protect the homeland during Operation Noble Eagle after the 9/11 attacks, as well as Guard members activated to respond to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and 6000 called up for Operation Jump Start to bolster border security with Mexico in 2007-2008.

“Title 32 active duty status means they are on active duty, paid by the federal government but they still technically come under the command and control of the governor,” said Peter Duffy,deputy legislative director of the National Guard Association of the United States. “Much of what the Guard does domestically and even some overseas tours are done on Title 32 status. And although it takes members away from families, and it involves some risk, and it has them doing what counterparts in the active force are doing domestically, it still doesn’t give them [GI Bill] benefits. It’s a big, big gap.”

The original draft of a proposed GI Bill last year excluded all reserve components members. During hurried negotiations to find a more acceptable bill, Congress left out Title 32 Guard members. A Defense official confirmed that the department plans to offer a legislative fix with its 2011 budget.

Data from the Army National Guard and Air National Guard show that 75,098 Army Guard members and 2,460 Air Guard members will not be entitled to the new GI Bill without a legislative fix, says the Government Accountability Office in a July 6 letter report detailing recent gains in Reserve and Guard compensation.

Duffy said his association has been told by the staff of Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), who led last year’s push to enact a Post-9/11 GI Bill, that Webb is aware of the glitch and how it impacts Title 32 Guard members. He intends to lead the push for corrective language sometime after Aug. 1 when the new GI Bill takes effect. Duffy said he would expect any move to eliminate this inequity for Guard members to be applied retroactively back to 9/11.

Webb and other lawmakers appear to be heeding a plea from VA officials not to make any changes to the enormously complex education benefit this year that might interfere with the program’s start in August.

Guardsman Simpson, 45, said “the beauty of Title 32 active duty is that it’s federally funded but it leaves the Guard under the control of governors. That’s how they get around the Posse Comitatus Act” which otherwise prohibits military involvement in domestic law enforcement.

After 9/11, Simpson said, he was among “large numbers of the Guard put on active duty under Title 32 to provide security in airports, power stations, bus terminals -- wherever governors deemed there to be critical infrastructure or important public safety concerns.”

And, for the past four years, he has remained on active duty under Title 32 in a fulltime AGR position.

“I’ve got soldiers who have worked here [at the Maryland Guard’s Joint Force Headquarters in Reisterstown] four or five years on Title 32, and perhaps spent a year on Title 10 orders,” Simpson said. “Yes, they have some eligibility [for new GI Bill benefits] but it’s a sliding scale, with 36 months needed to be the full ride. So, except for what I believe is the inequity of the GI Bill, they should be entitled to far more for their time.”

Scully, 53, spent his last years in the Air National Guard with the 126th Air Refueling Wing at Scott Air Force Base, Ill. Having 80 percent of the new GI Bill, he said, “would have made continuing my education affordable.” It was “a huge disappointment” to learn in late June that his final two years in the AGR after 9/11 did not make him eligible.

Getting his degree “wasn’t something I needed to do,” Scully added. “However, at my pay grade you become accustomed to being concerned with other folks. And I know there are a lot of folks out there who were counting on this GI Bill for future employment and [Guard] promotion opportunities.”

“If this GI Bill had been written only for those who served in combat, or for those who served overseas, I would have no issue with it whatsoever. But Title 10 folks who never left the United States are getting this benefit, and the Title 32 guy, doing that same job, isn’t.”

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