Vets shouldn’t be penalized for seeking to use earned education benefits overseas
Special to Stars and Stripes February 22, 2023
Stars and Stripes’ Jan. 31 edition included an article about the problem military veteran students, and their beneficiaries, are experiencing when attempting to utilize their GI Bill benefits at a foreign university. Our nation and our military are quite diverse, including my family and me. We hail from different countries, have different interests, and might speak more than one language, but we all unite in our service to the nation. As a result, many of us have earned educational benefits through Chapter 33 (GI Bill), Chapter 35 (dependents and survivor benefits), or Veteran Readiness and Employment (VR&E). Quite a few of us have earned degrees while serving and have transferred our educational benefits to our children. We extended our service and incurred additional service obligations so our children could attend college.
Imagine my surprise, and that of many other veterans living overseas, when officials at a public university in Germany told me that they could no longer participate in the Department of Veterans Affairs’ education program. I was not the only one caught off guard by this revelation. In July 2021, foreign schools certifying officials received a notification from the VA notifying them of changes to the approval process. Subsequently, veterans in Switzerland, Sweden, the U.K., Ireland, France, New Zealand, Canada, Australia and Denmark report that most universities have ceased participation with the VA, which led to fewer educational opportunities and, in many cases, financial hardship for veterans and families.
You would think that we should blame the universities. Indeed, the VA does. It passes responsibility and blame onto foreign schools when those will not, or in many instances legally cannot, comply with the VA’s antiquated internal payment system. Now, the VA bases its foreign program approval demand on 31 C.F.R. § 208.3, published in May 2020 (Federal Register, 2023). It requires federal agencies to make payments via direct deposit. While there are exceptions in section 208.4., none apply to the VA education payments.
In my opinion, the VA uses the law as a crutch to avoid the desperate need to overhaul its payment system. Payments to foreign accounts from the U.S. government are entirely possible. After all, many of us receive our military retirement into foreign accounts.
Starting in 2021, veterans support groups, various interest groups, individuals, and political committees have rallied support for legislative action culminating in Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-NJ, sponsoring H.R. 7375 (U.S. House of Representatives, 2022):
An act to direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to update the payment system of the Department of Veterans Affairs to allow for electronic fund transfer of educational assistance, administered by the Secretary, to a foreign institution of higher education (117th Congress, 2022, para. 1).
It passed the House 397 to 15 and advanced to the Senate. Once it was assigned to the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee chaired by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., it sat idly and — despite numerous voiced concerns from affected veterans, family members, constituents and support groups — died with the 117th Congress without being voted on. According to the Congressional Budget Office’s cost estimate, this bill would not have had any impact on the federal budget (CBO, 2022, Figure 1). It is also fair to say that education at a public university in Germany is quite affordable for students (€672-1,615 per month average cost) but also the VA compared to the $35,551 annual average cost in the United States (Dohmen et al., 2019; Hanson, 2022, para. 1).
As a veteran and military family, we know that benefits are in constant danger of erosion. When it appears that benefits are not being used, although in this instance institutionally prevented from being used, we stand to lose them. While we succeeded in having our voice heard on Capitol Hill, it apparently was not loud enough. This problem is not a partisan issue. It is an American veteran and military family issue, and we need you. Let’s be clear, these are entitlements that we earned through our service — not handouts or freebies. Contact your representatives, the House and Senate committees for Veterans’ Affairs, and make your voices heard! So, I ask you: O Brother, O Sister, where art thou?
Jana Tittle is a retired U.S. Army master sergeant. She lives in Germany and is an ordinary resident of Germany. She is a master of social work student at Salisbury University.