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New GI Bill: Implementation and How to Get Benefits

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Eric Hilleman
Deputy Director, Veterans of Foreign Wars National Legislative Service
Tuesday, July 1, 2008; 10:00 AM

Eric Hilleman, deputy director of Veterans of Foreign Wars's National Legislative Service, was online Tuesday, July 1 at 10 a.m. ET to discuss the signing of the new GI Bill, how it will be implemented, and how veterans can access the increased benefits it provides.

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Bush signs $162 billion war spending bill (AP, June 30)

The transcript follows.

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Eric Hilleman: Hello, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Eric A. Hilleman, and I'm deputy director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). As a product of the Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB), I'm still paying off my student loans from my undergraduate degree, which I received in 2004, and they should be fully paid in 2014.

in the past year and a half I, along with many other people, have worked day and night to pass this life-altering veterans' benefit. Please feel free to ask any questions. I'll do my best to answer all of them.

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San Diego: I was active duty in the Navy from July 1998 through June 2002. I then went into the Inactive Reserves for 12 months, then went into Active Reserves for six months (June 2003-December 2003), and then returned to Inactive Reserves from January 2004 to June 2006. Will I be entitled to anything at all under this new program?

Eric Hilleman: You should be eligible for MGIB benefits for your 1998 to 2002 service. Any months of usage, of the total eligible 36 months will count against full time usage of the 21st Century GI Bill. However, in your case you did not complete three years post-Sept. 11, 2001, the requirement for full-time active duty usage, but you did have some time post-Sept. 11, both on active duty and in the activated reserved. What does all this equate to? Simply that you will be eligible for a percentage of the full Webb bill, but the regulations have yet to be written about how combined periods of service will equate.

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Boston: Mr. Hilleman, I have a number of questions, as follows: How will the new GI Bill affect the individual service funds -- for example the Marine Corps College Fund, of which I am a proud recipient? How will the new GI Bill effect service members who did the full buy-up, i.e. the $1,800 pay-in? Most importantly, why will it take the VA one year to get up to speed on the new bill -- and if so, what are we supposed to do in the meantime? Thanks for your time.

Eric Hilleman: To address your questions, I'm uncertain of the impact the MCCF. I don't know enough about that program to answer that question.

The buy-up option for additional monthly compensation under MGIB still will be used from now until implementation of Webb's bill, August 2009. Once Webb goes live, I think there will be an opportunity to supplement the living stipend, but let me be clear -- the regulations have yet to be written.

The reasons it will take a year to implement: the Veterans Administration needs to have a computer system built that can administer this program efficiently and deal with the many standing obligations we have to those currently using the MGIB and other education programs.

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Burke, Va.: Hello. Can you briefly summarize the proposed new program?

Eric Hilleman: Take a look at this PDF.

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Lusby, Md.: I am wondering if this can be used to pay off dependent student loans that have occurred in the past, for those who already have graduated. Can this also be used for dependent graduate school?

Eric Hilleman: No, there is no student loan repayment in this program. The 21st Century GI Bill can be applied to graduate school, but the compensation rates will be pegged to undergraduate rates of highest in-state tuition.

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Washington: If a veteran is receiving educational assistance from his/her state, how does that impact getting educational benefits under the new GI Bill?

Eric Hilleman: State benefits should have no impact on the 21st Century GI Bill. The Webb bill is a federal benefit; state benefits are between you and the state.

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Philadelphia: Is this bill retroactive? If so, how retroactive is it? If someone left service in 2007, would that person qualify for any college benefits?

Eric Hilleman: No, the bill is not retroactive. If you served three years post-Sept. 11 you are eligible for the full 21st Century GI Bill. If you already have used MGIB benefits, then any remaining months of eligibility will be utilized under Webb.

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Camp Lejeune, N.C.: Hello! I cannot possibly tell you how excited my husband and I are with this bill's signing. We still have student loans from when he attended college for three years before his enlistment, and we were really dreading taking out more loans next year. Do we need to make any more pay allotments in order to take advantage this new GI Bill? We had $600 taken out of my husband's pay towards the Montgomery GI Bill. Will this money be refunded in consideration of the new bill?

Also, what do you think are the best resources for information concerning this bill? I've received conflicting information from several offices on base, including the VA office and the personnel office. My husband is in Iraq, and I feel like I'm running around in circles trying to find accurate information. Thank you for this discussion.

Eric Hilleman: No, the buy-in has been abolished. However, at this time there is not a proposal to refund those that have paid into the program.

Stand by and take the slow approach to this new program. The regulations have yet to be written. This is unlike anything we have seen since WWII. The basics: It pays the highest in-state undergraduate tuition, provides a variable housing allowance (based on a an E-5 with four years) as per the Zip code of your school, and $1000 a year for books. The other provisions are built upon this standard. Guard and Reserve members get percentages of the full benefit based on total accumulated service.

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Lexington Park, Md.: With benefits now transferable to dependents, I would expect that there will be many degreed retirees in the D.C. area taking advantage of this new GI Bill. What do you expect the ratio to be of "benefits transferred to dependents" vs. "benefits taken by benefactor"?

Eric Hilleman: I wouldn't dare speculate on the usage rates of this program. The data on the current transferability as employed by the Army does not suggest high usage rates, but there are expectations of increased usage of this new benefit.

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Prescott, Ariz.: Congratulations -- this has been needed for a long time. Was it frustrating having George W. Bush and John McCain fight you every step of the way on this legislation?

Eric Hilleman: A wise friend of mine once said "steel sharpens steel." I feel like a better person having gone through this process of being forged in adversity. In the end, the administration got what they wanted and the veterans community got what it sought -- win-win.

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Fountain, Colo.: I was in the U.S. Navy prior to the Iraq war; however, I joined the U.S. Army and I was one of the first ones to be extended un Iraq for the year when I was over there. I was then medically-admin separated before my second tour. I have been using my GI benefits for the apprenticeship program and will be a journeyman in February, 2009. Am I eligible for anything?

Eric Hilleman: You are eligible for Chapter 31 (Vocational Rehabilitation), are you using this currently? The total number of months for Chapter 31, Chapter 30 (MGIB) and Chapter 33 (Webb's Bill) should be 48.

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Montpelier, Vt.: Eric, how much does the bill provide for living expenses if tuition and books are provided for? Also, are the members of the National Guard units who served in Iraq and Afghanistan eligible for the full benefits?

Eric Hilleman: The 21st Century GI Bill will provide a living stipend based on a variable housing allowance (E-5 with four years) based on the zip code of the school you are attending. Guard and Reserve members are eligible for equitable benefits. They may apply the aggregate or total number of months served on active duty to count toward a percentage of the full-time active duty rate.

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Leonardtown, Md.: I'm one of the 25,000 service personnel who didn't have the Veterans Educational Assistance Program or the Montgomery GI Bill. I was active duty from September 1978 until I retired the last month of 2004. Am I eligible for any of new GI bill?

Eric Hilleman: If you never took advantage of the VEAP it is unlikely that you will be eligible for the new benefit.

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Washington: I haven't seen any information on which levels of degrees the new GI Bill covers. Is it limited to undergraduate, or does it cover post-graduate as well?

Eric Hilleman: The compensation rates are fixed to the highest in-state undergraduate tuition. You may apply this amount for post-graduate work.

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Fort Meade, Md.: I am planning to go to school overseas with the GI Bill. How does the housing allowance work? Is it tied to the Overseas Housing Allowance?

Eric Hilleman: I'm not certain how it will be applied for overseas study. I would image that the Department of Defense has a variable housing allowance for nearly every country and city. Stressing caution, the regulations have yet to be written, and the individual circumstances of service member will be fleshed out there.

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Washington: I was forced to decline the MGIB to participate in the college loan repayment program. Will I be eligible to participate in the new GI Bill?

Eric Hilleman: I'm not confident you will be eligible for 21st Century GI Bill. Not knowing the details of your case, and given this isn't the perfect forum, e-mail me. I'll do my best to answer more of your questions.

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Norfolk, Va.: Hello there, sir. I am in the Navy and my wife is a dependent. What are the transfer rules to dependents going to be?

Eric Hilleman: Transferability comes at the six-year mark; when you sign up for four more you can transfer up to 36 months to a spouse. At the 10-year mark when you sign up for four more, you can transfer any remaining months of the total 36 months of eligibility to a dependent.

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O'Fallon, Ill.: Hi. I retired from the Air Force in September 2005 after serving 27 years. I see that I'll be covered by this program, but will I be able to transfer my benefits to my spouse or child, even though I'm retired now? Thanks.

Eric Hilleman: Hello, O'Fallon -- you are far enough away from the river to stay dry. I'm from St. Louis, good to see you online.

Pleasantries aside, the answer is no. Once retired, you maintain your eligibility, but you didn't sign up for more service. The transferability option is intended to be a retention tool, not a retiree benefit.

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Washington: I have heard that besides paying the equivalent amount of the in-state public university tuition, the Webb GI bill will pay 50 percent of the remaining tuition at a private college, providing the private college grants the student the other 50 percent. Is this true? Thank you.

Eric Hilleman: This the dollar-for-dollar match program -- any institution's tuition that the highest in-state tuition doesn't cover must be covered by the student. For example if the highest in-state tuition in $10,000 a year, but your school costs $30,000 a year, you are on the hook for $20,000, unless the school is willing to forgive a percentage of that $20,000. Say they forgive $5,000 -- the federal government will match the forgiven amount of $5,000, leaving you on the hook for $10,000. It's a dollar-for-dollar match.

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Arlington, Va.: Is this new bill available to those who were not eligible for the old GI Bill because of attendance at ROTC or one of the academies?

Eric Hilleman: Yes.

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Washington: Are graduates of the service academies eligible for the new GI Bill? I got out of the Marine Corps in 2007 after eight years of service, and as a graduate of the Naval Academy did not qualify for the earlier version of the GI Bill, and therefore did not contribute to the plan. Now I am attending law school, and I very much would like to use the new GI Bill. Can I do so?

Eric Hilleman: Graduates of Service Academies and ROTC are eligible for the 21st Century GI Bill for additional years of service after the initial commitment is up. I don't believe you will be eligible.

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Blacksburg, Va.: Will veterans who are past the 10 years of separation or those who have used up most/all the old GI Bill benefits be eligible for the increased benefits?

Eric Hilleman: No, veterans past their 10-year mark do not qualify for the 21st Century GI Bill. They discharged in 1998 and did not do the prerequisite three years of post-Sept. 11 service.

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Fort Myer, Va.: It's too bad that other veterans who have served -- going back to those who were released during the "peace dividend" reduction of forces in 1992 -- couldn't pass on their benefits, and often had to work instead of using those benefits themselves.

Eric Hilleman: Very true, but as war take its toll on the force, peace can be just as damaging.

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Corpus Christi, Texas: Hi. I was in the reserves for six years and used all 36 months of my reserve GI Bill. I later got a commissioned, and paid $1,200 and the $600 kicker for the active GI Bill. Does the 48-months limit still apply? What happens to the kicker and associated monthly increase?

Eric Hilleman: You have a more interesting case. I would imagine you are eligible for the 21st Century GI Bill, depending on your periods of service. I'm not yet sure how the buy-up kicker will be treated, but I hope it will be incorporated to the variable housing allowance. I don't know how the 48-month limit will apply, but Guard and Reserve benefits don't match one-for-one with active-duty benefits, and it depends on what you got from your state. Sorry, we'll have to see the regulations, once written, on your case.

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Bedford, Mass.: I served from 1984 until I retired in 2007. I was not able to participate in the VEAP. Am I eligible for the new GI Bill? Thank you for your time.

Eric Hilleman: There were two opportunities for those under VEAP to opt into MGIB. If you missed both of these opportunities, you are not eligible for the 21st Century GI Bill.

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Springfield, Va.: I currently am in the military and paid the $1,200 required to get into the current GI Bill. How can I transition from the old GI Bill to the new one? Given that no money is required to be part of this newly enacted GI Bill, will we be refunded the $1,200 we gave to take part of the prior GI Bill?

Eric Hilleman: If you serve three years post-Sept. 11 you are eligible. All new troops will be excluded from paying the $1,200, but you will not get your buy-in refunded.

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Washington: Can benefits be passed to immediate family members (spouse, children)? If so, what are the requirements to allow one to do this?

Eric Hilleman: Transferability: After six years of service, when you re-enlist for four more years you can transfer up to 36 months to a spouse. At the ten-year mark, when you re-enlist for four more, you can transfer any of the remaining total 36 months to a dependent.

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Mill Valley, Calif.: Does any of the new benefit package -- or changes in veterans' benefits -- affect veterans of previous wars (in particular, those who served during the Vietnam era)? Or is the new package reserved for currently returning servicemen and women? Thank you.

Eric Hilleman: This new 21st Century GI Bill is geared for those serving in the 21st Century. To qualify you must have had three years post-Sept. 11 service.

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Wilmington, N.C.: Will soldiers currently using the GI bill benefits receive "back pay"? Also, will soldiers who invested $100/month for their first year in service in order to receive the old GI bill be reimbursed now that it is available to all for free? Lastly, thanks for pushing this bill. I have been using the benefits for one year now, and it is barely enough money to live on. This will ease some of the financial burden and allow veterans to concentrate on their education.

Eric Hilleman: No, you paid the $1,200 and that is nonrefundable. New enlistees will be excluded from paying the buy-in. The full phase- in of the 21st Century GI Bill will begin in August of 2009. To qualify, you must have had three years post-Sept. 11 service.

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Patuxent River, Md.: I was on VEAP and borrowed against it, then went to pay it back and wasn't allowed to because the time limit had expired, so I've never had any GI Bill or VEAP benefits. I retired in December 2004. Am I eligible for this program now?

Eric Hilleman: If you did not enroll in the MGIB from VEAP, you are not eligible for the 21st Century GI Bill.

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Washington: Information available says that any MGIB months that have been used are deducted from the 36 months available under Webb. Is this true for VEAP months as well? Also, if the VEAP were used after my Army discharge, and I subsequently (following college) joined the Navy, do I acquire new eligibility for college assistance under Webb?

Eric Hilleman: If you were eligible for VEAP and you never enrolled in MGIB, you will not be eligible for the 21st Century GI Bill. The 36 months of benefits under MGIB is the same 36 months under 21st Century GI Bill; if you used 12 months of MGIB you only have 24 months of 21st Century GI Bill left.

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Boston: Please thank Mr. Hilleman for his time. Veterans greatly appreciate his hard work.

Eric Hilleman: Boston, thank you for your kind words.

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Patrick Air Force Base, Fla.: I'm medically retired (August 2007) and will be pursuing a master's. Can I transfer the leftover money to my active-duty husband, who is just getting started on his bachelor's? If it matters, we both paid for the GI Bill, and I also paid for the buy-up of $1,800.

Eric Hilleman: No, transferability is intended as a retention tool. If you don't sign up for more service you are ineligible. To qualify for the 21st Century GI Bill you must have served three years of post-Sept. 11 service. If you are medically retired you are eligible for Chapter 31 (vocational rehabilitation).

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Kaiserslautern, Germany: Hello, I am a spouse of an active-duty Air Force member. He enlisted in July 2004, and isn't due to re-enlist until 2011. When can I take advantage of this bill, and to what extent? Also, is the coverage any different if stationed overseas?

Eric Hilleman: Transferability: After six years of service he must re-enlist for four, and then he can transfer up to 36 months of eligibility to a spouse. At his 10-year mark he must re-enlist for four more to transfer any of the unused 36 months to a dependent.

We have yet to see the regulations, they are being written as we chat here. They will dictate the overseas compensation rates.

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New Haven, Conn.: How will this new program interact with existing federal aid programs? Could it displace Pell and campus aid? Can that money be carried forward?

Eric Hilleman: These decisions are made at your institution within the financial aid office. The highest in-state tuition will not be paid to you, it will be paid to the school. You will receive $1,000 a year for books and the variable housing rate (based on an E-5 with four years) tied to the Zip code of the school.

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Boulder, Colo.: Hello, and thanks for the session. I just last month returned from Iraq after a seven-month tour as part of Army National Guard Reserves. I'm still on active duty through August. I was at the University of Colorado at Boulder before having to withdraw mid-semester to deploy. What changes would this bill bring to my situation as I head back to the university and still remain on reserve through July 2009?

Eric Hilleman: You will now be able to aggregate your total months of service and use your GI Bill post-service. Previously, you had to use it while you were in the Guard or Reserve and only could receive GI Bill benefits based on your longest continuous period of active duty service.

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Arlington, Va.: I am ending active service in October. How will I fit under the new bill? Will I fall under the new bill or the old one?

Eric Hilleman: If you have three years of post-Sept. 11 active duty you get the full 21st Century GI Bill as of August of 2009 when it goes fully live.

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Nebraska: Hi. I'm enlisted military and just started using my GI Bill to pay for grad school. When I can, I use top-up to cover the cost difference. Otherwise, I use the full GI Bill. How will things change for me?

Eric Hilleman: Every month of full time active-duty MGIB you use of your total 36 months will be subtracted from the 21st Century GI Bill.

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Fort Meade, Md.: Thank you for pushing this bill. My question is, if we go to school full-time, will we still get the housing allowance during the summer?

Eric Hilleman: Yes! As long as you qualify for as a full time student.

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Dunn Loring, Va.: Is the prior poster's characterization of your having to fight Bush and McCain accurate, or is it fairer to say that Bush/McCain supported a GI Bill, but on different terms than the Democrats' proposal?

Eric Hilleman: The administration and Sen. McCain opposed the Webb GI Bill, S. 22. They fought to have the GI Bill changed based on the concept S. 2938, the Enhancement of Recruitment, Retention and Readjustment through Education Act of 2008. This bill was seen by many as an attempt to derail Webb's proposal.

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Centerville, Mass.: My Father served through World War II and the Korean War and never used a penny of his GI Bill. Would any of that be available to his children under this new law? Thank you.

Eric Hilleman: No. This benefit is for individuals who accumulated post-Sept. 11 service.

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