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Expanded GI Bill Too Late for Some

Post-9/11 GI Bill sponsor Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) want benefits available before August.
Post-9/11 GI Bill sponsor Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) want benefits available before August. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The new GI Bill passed by Congress over the summer, which dramatically expands veterans benefits, was lauded as a sign that the country was looking after this generation of warriors. But don't extol its virtues to Grey Adkins, who served two tours with the Navy off the coast of Iraq, is $10,000 in debt and won't see a dime of the new benefits.

Even though it is called the Post-9/11 GI Bill, the new legislation won't take effect until Aug. 1, 2009 -- eight years after jets felled the twin towers and other planes crashed into the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. By then, Adkins will have graduated from Towson University. And because the bill is not retroactive, it won't help him at all.

The difference it would make is stark. Currently, he receives $1,600 a month during the school year, or about $15,000. Under the new bill, he would be eligible for up to twice that amount each school year.

So far, more than 410,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have used the current GI bill, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs -- and many, like Adkins, will finish school before the new benefits start.

Many advocates for veterans say that it took too long to update a GI Bill that has not kept pace with the escalating price of college tuition. But now there is also concern that the VA won't be able to meet the August deadline after it abruptly abandoned its plan to hire a private contractor this month and instead will implement the new program itself.

At stake is one of the most cherished programs offered by the U.S. government. First signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt two weeks after D-Day in 1944, the GI Bill made home ownership and college education accessible to so many that it was dubbed "the Magic Carpet to the Middle Class." Over the years, however, the benefits lagged, which was why Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) introduced the Post-9/11 GI Bill on his first day in office in 2007.

Unlike the current GI Bill, which for years covered just half the national average cost of tuition, room and board and requires a $1,200 buy-in fee, the new benefit, expected to cost $62 billion over 10 years, would pay the full cost of any public college. It also provides a $1,000 a year stipend for books and a monthly living stipend that averages about $1,100 but varies by Zip code.

Meanwhile, since the Webb bill passed, current GI Bill benefits increased 20 percent so that the highest monthly payment is $1,321, unless, like Adkins, a service member pays a fee for increased benefits.

When the bill was signed into law June 30, Webb pushed to make the benefits effective immediately. But the VA, citing the complexity of the legislation, said it needed more time to develop a plan to implement the system and the help of an outside information technology contractor to get it up and running on time.

At a congressional hearing last month, Stephen W. Warren, the VA's principal deputy assistant secretary for information and technology, said hiring a contractor was "the only way we could see getting there. Using our staff and our existing system tools and skill sets would not get us there. And it is difficult for a leader of an organization to say, 'My people cannot do it.' "

But after criticism from some veterans organizations, who said such a vaunted program should not be placed in the hands of a private company, the VA changed course, saying it could not find a suitable contractor and would administer the bill "in-house." The American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union, also applied pressure by filing a protest with the Government Accountability Office.

In a statement, Veterans Affairs Secretary James B. Peake vowed that although it was "unfortunate that we will not have the technical expertise from the private sector," the department "can and will deliver the benefits program on time."

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