WASHINGTON — Seeking to boost recruitment and reward the huge role the National Guard and Reserves are playing in Afghanistan and Iraq, a bipartisan group of congressional lawmakers on Thursday pushed the biggest expansion of the GI Bill since World War II.
The Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act, known on Capitol Hill as the GI II Bill, would give members of the National Guard and Reserves who are called to active duty the same opportunities for federal tuition assistance as members of the standing Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.
That's nearly half a million part-time soldiers, airmen, Marines and sailors since the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. The estimated cost would be $2-billion to $4-billion per year.
"As we rely on the Guard and Reserve more and more, it's only fair that they be included in a bill offering educational benefits," said Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, the lead Republican sponsor of the bill in the House.
The House version, which was filed late Wednesday night, has more than 170 Democratic and Republican sponsors. The Senate version, which is sponsored by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., and Sen. John Warner, R-Va., was filed early this year and has 52 sponsors, more than half the Senate.
The last update for education benefits for service people, the 1984 Montgomery GI Bill, provided a small stipend for tuition to members of the National Guard, but the payments stop when they leave the Guard. A 2004 program also gives reservists up to $880 per month for tuition.
The GI II Bill would mark a substantial increase: Members of the Guard and Reserves could qualify for the highest tuition rate of a public university in their state, as well as a housing stipend.
If they chose to attend a private school, the government would match whatever assistance the school provided them.
But to receive full tuition for a four-year degree, service members would have to serve on active duty for a total of at least 36 months, aides said. Those who serve less would qualify for a proportional amount.
Those who served on active duty in the Guard and Reserves also could use the benefit at any time within 15 years of leaving active duty.
"This is something which is long overdue," said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., another co-sponsor. "We have to bring GI benefits into the 21st century, and we also need to acknowledge the tremendous" contribution of the Guard and Reserves in Iraq and Afghanistan.
So far, nearly 255,000 members of the National Guard have been activated and deployed for Operation Enduring Freedom or Operation Iraqi Freedom, along with 202,000 members of the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Reserves.
According to the Florida Department of Military Affairs, about 6,200 of those Guard members are from Florida. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Reserve said another 1,850 reservists from Florida are deployed now, but figures for how many reservists have been deployed from Florida overall were not available.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., back the bill, but its prospects are neither clear nor assured. The Defense Department has opposed the expansion of the program in the past because of the cost. House sponsors hope to attach it to the next supplemental spending bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but President Bush has taken a dim view of using war-funding bills for other projects.
Brown-Waite and Mitchell said they believe the tuition assistance will entice more people to join the Guard and Reserves, which have had trouble recruiting because of the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As for the steep price, Mitchell said the bill is morally right and would end up paying for itself.
"This is the cost of war," Mitchell said. "We can't shortchange, whether it's educational benefits or medical benefits or any other kind of benefits . . . Once we went down the road to engage the military as we have, this is our obligation."
Wes Allison can be reached at
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