By Jacqueline M. Hames
On June 30, 2008, the president signed the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008-also known as the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which is a benefits program for servicemembers who served on active duty on or after Sept. 11, 2001.
When the bill took effect Aug. 1, 2009 it was met with great enthusiasm. Under the new law, the Department of Veterans Affairs determines eligibility of the applicants and will provide up to 36 months of benefits.
Former Sgt. Brian Parker, a photo-journalist with the 3rd U.S. Infanry Regiment (The Old Guard) from 2005 to 2009, applied for benefits soon after the bill was active.
"I thought the application process was going to be difficult," Parker said, "However, I just applied online and it was really easy. I got it done within half an hour. Within, I would say 10 days, I got a letter saying my benefits had been approved."
As a Soldier with qualifying active-duty service, Parker used his benefits for an approved education program at an accredited institution of higher learning, which includes graduate and undergraduate degree programs, as well as vocational and technical training. Some of the key benefits include tuition and fees, a monthly living allowance, and an annual stipend of up to $1,000 for books and supplies, according to the VA website, www.gibill.va.gov.
Parker used the benefits to attend George Mason University in Virginia after leaving the Army in November 2009. He began school the day his active-duty service ended.
While Parker's application process went smoothly, not everyone can escape the process without asking questions. The two most pressing concerns: determining what qualifies as active-duty service and what transferability options are available.
Qualifying active-duty service comprises either an aggregate period of 36 months, or at least 30 continuous days on active duty with a discharge due to service-connected disability. If a Soldier meets either of these requirements, he will receive 100 percent of the benefits.
Benefits less than 100 percent are paid on a sliding scale; if a Soldier serves less than 36 months on active duty without being discharged due to a service-related disability, he will receive a smaller percentage of benefits. For example, if a Soldier serves at least 30 months but less than 36, he would receive 90 percent of benefits.
Retired Lt. Col. Thomas Erickson, former chief of the Enlisted Professional Development Branch, helped explain what qualifies as active-duty service.
If an individual separates with less than 24 months on active duty, any time in entry-level skill training (like Basic or Advanced Individual Training), does not qualify for Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits.
"Young Soldiers need to think twice before they get separated with less than 24 months. They need to stick it out," Erickson advised.
Active-duty service obligation for commissioning from a service academy like West Point, ROTC scholarship for ADSO, and student loan repayment for ADSO do not qualify. However, Soldiers can qualify for benefits with time on active duty after the completion of the ADSO, VA officials explained.
For Reserve Soldiers, entry training and annual training do not qualify as active-duty service yet, Erickson explained. Army National Guard active-duty service under Title 32 does not qualify either.
"That is very unpopular in the Army National Guard and rightfully so," Erickson added, "But the legislation as it is currently written specifically excludes that as qualifying active-duty service."
Once an individual establishes Post-9/11 GI Bill eligibility, the next question asked is usually about transferability. Unused benefits are transferable to dependants if the Soldier has six years of service, is currently on active duty, and agrees to serve an additional four years in the armed forces.
"Six years is defined by all of your military service except time that you spent in the Individual Ready Reserves, or IRR," Erickson explained. "It includes active-duty service and selective Reserve time to get to that six-year gate. Once you've met that six-year gate, you can request to transfer all of your unused benefits." Other stipulations apply to those who have served at least 10 years or are eligible for retirement.
Spouses may use transferred benefits after a Soldier has served just six years. However, a Soldier must have completed 10 years of federal service before his children are eligible to receive benefits.
Dependants receive benefits at the same percentage rate determined by the length of qualifying active-duty service of the Soldier. Spouses can use benefits transferred to them up to 15 years after the Soldier leaves the service, Erickson explained.
The law stipulates benefits must be transferred to eligible dependant children prior to age 21, and children must be in the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System. Eligibility status for children can be extended from age 21 to 23 only if the child is a full-time student, verified by DEERS. Once verified, that child can use the benefits until age 26.
Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Freddie Brock, who served as the U.S. Army Provost Sergeant Major/Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Office of the Provost Marshal General, applied for transfer of benefits for his wife, Jennifer, over the summer of 2009. He suggested applying for the transfer as early as possible to ensure a timely delivery of benefits.
If the benefits don't arrive on time, Brock suggested asking a VA represent- ative at the school you plan to attend about deferring tuition payments until the funds are approved.
"Some schools may work with you so that you don't have to put off enrollment while you wait for the funding. George Mason University, my wife's school, has a great program for Soldiers and spouses," Brock said.
Soldiers approaching retirement should consider how long they are willing to stay in the Army after planned retirement before they transfer benefits, Erickson cautioned. Special rules apply to retirees, based on how many years of service they have as of Aug. 1, 2009.
Soldiers eligible for retirement Aug. 1, 2009, and those approved for retirement between then and July 1, 2010, incur no additional service requirement. Those eligible for retirement between Aug. 1, 2009 and Aug. 1, 2010, must commit to one additional year of service. Soldiers eligible for retirement after Aug. 1, 2010 will need to serve two or more years after the approval of transfer of benefits, according to the VA website. For complete details, see the frequently asked question section on the site.
Detailed information about the transfer of benefits can be found at any Army education center.
"They key is that Soldiers need to take the time to read the policy, as it is all there. I have found many don't take the time to educate themselves on the actual policy," Erickson said, and instead make decisions based on hearsay.
"Make sure you are educated about it," Parker agreed, "and don't pass it off like it's just another benefit. Take advantage of it, even if you plan on staying in the Army."
The Post-9/11 GI Bill differs from the Montgomery GI Bill in several ways, Erickson explained. When you came on active duty under the MGIB, you had to make a decision whether or not to enroll and pay $100 a month for the first 12 months of your enlistment. When a Soldier converts to the Post-9/11 bill, he will be reimbursed the $1,200 invested in the MGIB once he's used the last month of Post-9/11 bill benefits.
The program allows Soldiers to use their benefits at numerous institutions and for things like certification, or non-traditional education, as well as at institutions of higher learning, Lt. Col. Robert Yost, the current chief of the Enlisted Professional Development Branch, added.
"(The Post-9/11 bill) won't pay for OJT (on-the-job training) or apprenticeships and all that. But if you convert from MGIB to Post-9/11 GI Bill, the educational opportunities available to you under MGIB carry over and then you can...use Post-9/11 for the same educational opportunities," Erickson said.
Another difference between Post-9/11 and MGIB is that when you decline the MGIB eligibility, you forfeit it forever. Soldiers with MGIB benefits "have to make an irrevocable conversion from MGIB to the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Once they make the conversion, they can never go back," Erickson warns.
Because of that irreversible decision, it is important that Soldiers who have used most of their MGIB benefits are aware of how much they have left. If a Soldier uses all the MGIB benefits and then converts, he could receive an additional 12 months of benefits under the Post-9/11 bill. But, for example, if he has six months of MGIB benefits remaining, he will only receive six months of benefits from the Post-9/11 bill.
Parker encouraged Soldiers to seek guidance and ask questions about the MGIB and Post-9/11 bill to ensure they get the most out of whichever program they elect to use.
"You can use (the bill) or transfer it to your spouse or your kids, which I think is a great option," Parker said. "I think it's one of the best, probably the best, benefit the military has to offer.
Senator Daniel Akaka, Chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, recently introduced legislation, known as the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Improvements Act of 2010, to improve the Post-9/11 GI Bill, Yost said. The proposed legislation includes extending the book allowance to active-duty members and their Families; giving federal service credit to National Guard and certain Reserve members; and providing a portion of the living stipend to distance education students who, under the current program, only benefit if they take at least one on-campus course.
For updates or more information on the Post-9/11 GI Bill, Parker recommends going to the VA website, or the nearest Army education center. Applicants can also call 1-888-GIBILL-1, a VA-staffed hotline to field GI Bill questions. Army education centers can also provide valuable information. To find a local center, visit www.GoArmyEd.com.
<b>Soldiers beware of education counseling scams</b>
The introduction of the Post-9/11 GI Bill has produced a flurry of activity within education-related services. More and more organizations advertise education-counseling services for Soldiers at a nominal fee, but officials with the Army Continuing Education System say Soldiers need not pay for those services.
Aca,!A"Any kind of educational counseling or advice you can receive at the AEC (Army education center) on any Army post,Aca,!A? said Dr. Robert Drake, program manager for Army/America Registry Transcript System in Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
Army education centers can be found worldwide, and provide education-counseling services free of charge to Soldiers and their Families. The AECs cater to active-duty, Guard and Reserve Soldiers.
While legitimate civilian education counseling companies exist, Drake said some others are using the Department of Veterans Affairs logo and military images on their websites to induce Soldiers to pay up front for education counseling or advocacy.
Aca,!A"We (were informed) that Soldiers had been contacted about (these services) by different companies,Aca,!A? Drake said. Aca,!A"We want to make sure that Soldiers know exactly where they are supposed to be going to receive the services and (that they are) not paying for it themselves.Aca,!A?
These organizations claim participating colleges and universities are fully accredited and recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation when they are not. Other companies boast reduced rates to attract servicemembers.
Aca,!A"There are some unscrupulous agencies where companies will set up a booth here or there and try to charge the Soldiers for counseling services. But they should not ever have to pay for them,Aca,!A? Drake said.
The AEC can provide information on tuition assistance, degree program counseling and the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
To find an AEC near you, visit www.goarmyed.com.