Strengthened GI Bill Needed to Draw Recruits

By Sgt. 1st Class Kathleen T. Rhem, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 2, 2002 -- Today's Montgomery GI Bill needs to more closely resemble the World War II-era program to be a useful recruiting tool, according to a senior congressional staff member.

"We talk about the all-volunteer force, but we all know what it is. . It's an all-recruited force," Darryl Kehrer said. "I don't see the United States going back to conscription and drafting people into the military. The middle class will not have it, and lots of others will not have it."

Kehrer is staff director for the benefits subcommittee of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. He spoke in New Orleans July 31 to more than 450 attendees at the DoD Worldwide Transition Assistance Program Training Conference.

He said the House Veterans Affairs Committee is working to return to the wartime GI Bill. "Tuition and books will be paid directly to the colleges by VA, just as it was after World War II. The veteran student would also receive a monthly allowance to cover expenses," he explained. "The separating service member could attend any institution in America, limited only by their own aspirations, initiatives and abilities."

Congress has increased the Montgomery GI Bill benefits by 46 percent over the last two years. Benefits will increase to $900 this October and again to $985 in October 2003, Kehrer said. The Congressional Budget Office estimates former service members will use these increases to the tune of $7 billion over 10 years, he noted.

Still, these improvements simply aren't enough, he said. Today the Montgomery GI Bill monthly allowance would have to be $1,409 for a service member to attend a public, four- year institution as a commuter student, he said.

Congress has also approved increases in the monthly amount for on-the-job training and apprenticeships.

Kehrer noted that committee chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith of New Jersey has convened a working group of folks from business, labor, industry and government to redesign the Montgomery GI Bill's on-the-job training and apprenticeship aspects because they're based on a 1946 model.

"It needs to be dramatically overhauled to reflect apprenticeship today," he said.

He said returning to the post-World War II-era GI Bill would send a message to the youth of America and to "middle-class parents who are priced out of student aid programs.

"If the original GI Bill is our most successful program ever, why should 'ever' not include the here and now," Kehrer quoted Smith as saying in a committee hearing last summer. "When only about 1.4 million of America's sons and daughters go in harm's way for 278 million of their fellow Americans, seems like we owe them something more meaningful."

Navy Vice Adm. Patricia Tracey, then deputy assistant secretary of defense for military personnel policy, testified in 2001 that the pool of 17- to 21-year-old males from which the services actually get to recruit is 14-16 out of 100, Kehrer said. Two-thirds go on to post-secondary education, she said, and still more have moral, physical or other issues.

"Should we be surprised when our youth ask, 'Why serve in the military when financial aid abounds for those of us who do not serve?'" Kehrer asked. "Why serve in the military when the Montgomery GI Bill is the only student financial- aid program in America that makes the student lay out $1,200 in cold cash in the form of a military pay reduction to establish eligibility?"

He said the country needs a GI Bill that will show the youth of America that a tour in the military is a way to achieve their college plans rather than a detour from them.