Proponents for strengthening Montgomery GI Bill benefits for the National Guard and Reserve say the critical issue is fairness. Reserve rates, frozen for years, need to be raised. Reserve benefits need to be made as portable as MGIB for active forces, their wartime deployment partners.

Not so, said a senior Defense official. The critical issue is how best to manage finite resources. There is no reason to raise Reserve GI Bill benefits as long as enough personnel join and re-enlist with reserve components.

The arguments were as blunt as that during an unusual Sept. 27 joint hearing of the House armed services subcommittee on military personnel and the veterans’ affairs subcommittee on economic opportunity. The two panels share oversight responsibility for MGIB programs.

The Republican chairman and ranking Democrat on the personnel subcommittee — John McHugh, R-N.Y., and Vic Snyder, D-Ark., — were in sync laying out their a case for raising reserve MGIB benefits perhaps next year. Snyder in particular sees two major inequities that need correction.

The first, he said, is that MGIB for reservists ends when they separate after a typical six-to-eight-year service obligation. That’s true even now, in wartime, with Reserve and National Guard members being mobilized routinely for 16 to 18 months and spending a year in Iraq or Afghanistan. When active-duty members leave service, they take along MGIB benefits. Reserve benefits can be used only while they remain in drill status.

“How is it fair when two members serve side by side in combat, they return home together, both leave the service, but one will have education benefits [and] the other will not have any?” asked Snyder. “This seems to me to be unconscionable.”

A second inequity is the level of benefits under MGIB for Selected Reserves. Payments used to be set to equal 47 percent of benefits for active-duty MGIB users. But cost of living increases to active-duty MGIB, which the Department of Veterans Affairs administers and VA committees oversee, have not been applied to Reserve benefits since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The armed services committees are responsible for Reserve MGIB and so can be blamed for letting benefits slip. But it’s also true, Snyder said, that the Bush administration has not asked for money to adjust Reserve MGIB. On Oct. 1, when active-duty benefits go up once again, Reserve MGIB benefits will stay frozen, and their value, relative to active-duty MGIB, will fall to 27 percent.

“Shouldn’t we at least bring that benefit up to where it was at the time the program was [established]?” Snyder asked Michael L. Dominguez, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

Dominguez refused to concede the point, instead providing what he described as “a number-crunching, bean-counter” view. Reserve MGIB was designed primarily as a retention tool to keep members in drill status.

“If we look at our recruiting and retention numbers, we’re achieving the purposes for which the program was intended,” said Dominguez, a 1975 West Point graduate. For five years, until last July, he served as assistant secretary of the Air Force for manpower and reserve affairs.

Following that logic, an angry Snyder told Dominguez, if the Reserve MGIB “deteriorates to 3 percent of the [active-duty] benefit … or 1 percent, you’re going to be perfectly satisfied as long as Americans are stepping forward and signing enlistment contracts for reasons for patriotism, family heritage, for love of country. You don’t care where that benefit deteriorates to. … I think you stepped in it, Mr. Secretary.”

Dominguez refused to reverse field, however.

“If people understand what we offer in return for their service, and they know that up front and they agree to that service, under those conditions I think that needs to be honored,” he said.

The Senate, in its version of the 2007 defense authorization bill, adopted an amendment from Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., that would give Reserve MGIB benefits the same portability as active-duty MGIB, a 10-year window to use benefits after separation. The House bill was silent on the issue, and the proposal didn’t survive a House-Senate conference committee ironing out differences between the two bills.

The Bush administration, in opposing the Lincoln provision, also pointed to projected costs of $1.5 billion over 10 years and urged a delay on any changes to benefits until a joint VA-Department of Defense task force completes a comprehensive review of MGIB issues.

Among proposals under review is a Total Force MGIB conceived by the Partnership for Veterans Education, a coalition of military, veterans and educational associations. The Total Force MGIB would end the inequities cited by Snyder, move responsibility for all GI bill benefits under the Department of Veterans Affairs and raise benefits to mobilized reservists. They would earn a month of active-duty MGIB benefits for every month of activation beyond 90 days.

Dominguez said that if given an extra $1.5 billion for reserve forces, he would recommend spending it on Reserve equipment, not MGIB benefits.

Retired Navy Vice Adm. Norbert Ryan, testifying on behalf of the partnership, warned that three of six reserve components won’t make their recruiting goals for fiscal 2006. Continued neglect of Reserve MGIB benefits, he said, could be what drives the all-volunteer force “into a ditch.”

Steve Kime, with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said Dominguez, for DOD, gave “a perfect articulation of 30-year-old thinking” about reserve forces and the value of education benefits.

Reserve and active forces, he said, are patrolling the same streets in Baghdad, “getting shot at by the same bullets. It’s time for a new vision and some new direction from Congress to DOD” on the MGIB, Kime said.

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