President Barack Obama speaks to a crowd of veterans and educators at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., about new post-9/11 GI Bill benefits on Monday.

President Barack Obama speaks to a crowd of veterans and educators at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., about new post-9/11 GI Bill benefits on Monday. (Amanda L. Boston / S&S)

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Monday pitched the new military education benefits not only as a well-deserved reward for young veterans but also as an agent for the nation’s economic recovery, by helping train new leaders in the work force.

“The young post-9/11 veterans around the country can lead the way to a lasting economic recovery and become the glue that holds our communities together,” he told a crowd of servicemembers and educators on campus at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. “They, too, can become the backbone of a growing American middle class.”

The new education benefits, passed by Congress last year and launched on Saturday, provide four years of tuition at any public university in a veteran’s home state for anyone who served at least three years on active duty since Sept. 11, 2001.

The changes also add a cost-of-living stipend to the benefits, increase money available to reservists, and allow servicemembers who serve at least 10 years to transfer their tuition money to a spouse or child.

So far this summer about 112,000 veterans have submitted claims for themselves, and Defense Department officials say another 25,000 have applied to transfer those education benefits to a family member.

It’s the first major revision of the GI Bill, passed after World War II to help reintegrate hundreds of thousands of servicemembers returning from fighting overseas.

“The first GI Bill paid for itself many times over through the increased revenue that came from a generation of men and women who received the skills and education that they needed to create their own wealth,” Obama said.

“We have lived through an age when many people and institutions have acted irresponsibly. ... The men and women who have served since 9/11 tell us a different story. Now, with this policy, we are making it clear that the United States of America must reward responsibility, and not irresponsibility.”

Veterans Affairs officials said they expect more than 250,000 veterans to use the new tuition and living stipend to attend school over the next three years. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki urged those using the money to “make it count for your country.”

Veterans groups at the event lauded the work of lawmakers behind the benefits upgrade — architects of the bill Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., and former Virginia Sen. John Warner both addressed the crowd — but also noted that significant work still needs to be done.

The tuition payouts are based on the most expensive public school in each veteran’s home state. As a result, the actual value of the new GI Bill is different from one veteran to the next, depending on where they live.

Members of the Student Veterans of American and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America have already begun lobbying Congress for a simpler approach, but one that still ties payouts to the ever-rising cost of a college education.

And Shinseki acknowledged that VA officials rushed to meet the Aug. 1 deadline for the start of the benefits, and will face challenges in coming months to keep the program running smoothly as more and more veterans apply to colleges.

Obama said the money is just part of the debt owed by the country.

“The contributions that our servicemen and women can make to this nation do not end when they take off that uniform,” he said. “And when we repay that debt to those bravest Americans among us, then we are investing in our future — not just their future, but also the future of our own country.”

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