By Navy Lt. Jennifer Cragg
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, July 15, 2009 – Servicemembers interested in using the new Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits this fall are encouraged to contact the Veterans Affairs Department soon to determine their eligibility, the VA’s director of education said.
“The reason we opened the door early on May 1 [was] so that we can manage this workload effectively; we expected a significant demand,” Keith Wilson told bloggers and online journalists during a “DoDLive” bloggers roundtable, yesterday.
“We wanted people to come in as quickly as possible because the sooner we can get that eligibility determination out of the way, the better place we are [in] to process the enrollment [certifications] when the schools start to come in with that information,” he said.
On average, processing times to verify eligibility can take from a few weeks up to a few months, Wilson said. However, colleges and universities have been ready to receive the enrollment applications for some time.
“We’ve got students at 6,800 colleges,” Wilson said. “They have been engaged with information flow from VA from the beginning.”
The VA already is processing fall enrollment forms, he noted.
“The important issue, though, is getting that request into us as soon as possible. We are already at the point now where the fall enrollment is starting to hit us; our high demand period for the year is upon us,” he said.
The new Post-9/11 GI Bill is just one of four major education programs the VA offers, Wilson said. People should educate themselves on the different options to find the best fit.
“This is a complex program, but it is complex because of the flexibility it has,” Wilson said. “The costs of education vary widely across the country, the types of training that is offered vary widely, and individuals have to be participatory in this process.
“They have to be actively engaged to understand what their benefits do for them or what they don’t do for them so that they can maximize the benefits of all of our programs.”
In fact, “many individuals are eligible for multiple programs,” he said.
Servicemembers’ spouses and children may be eligible for benefits, as well.
“Transferability of education benefits has been one of the most requested and largest requests from the field and fleet, particularly from family support and advocacy groups,” said Bob Clark, assistant director of Accession Policy for the Office of the Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Military Personnel Policy, who also attended the roundtable.
To be eligible to transfer benefits to family members, servicemembers must first qualify for the Post 9/11 GI Bill, Clark said.
Servicemembers must have qualifying active duty since Sept. 11, 2001, and must be serving in the armed forces either on active duty or in the selective reserves on Aug. 1,, 2009, Clark said. “That means that it doesn’t apply to members of the individual ready reserve, those who retired or separated.
“The provision was included in law to recruit and retain the current force, and requires a member [to be] of that force on or after that date the program becomes effective,” he continued. “To be eligible, you must have served six years and commit to four additional years.”
Clark said servicemembers can verify their family members’ eligibility by checking the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System.
“[They] must be listed in DEERS and must be eligible for benefits,” Clark said. “They must be either a spouse or a child who [is] eligible for benefits, which means children under the age of 21 or 23 as a full-time student.”
When servicemembers’ children use the benefit, they use it the same way as a veteran, Wilson said.
“They would go to our GI Bill Web site [and] apply online,” he explained. “After service approval and application to VA, we would issue them a certificate of eligibility.”
Students then take the certificate to their school, and their school’s VA certifying official will report to the VA the same information they would have reported if the veteran would have been using the benefit, Wilson said.
Children can start using the benefit at 18 years old or after obtaining a high school diploma or equivalent, or until the day they turn 26, Clark said.
On the other hand, “A spouse is treated exactly like the sponsor; they can use the benefit while the sponsor is on active duty and for up to 15 years after the sponsor’s last separation,” he said.
Servicemembers can select the months they have available -- up to 36 months total -- to share with each family member, and select the period of time in whole months, Clark said. Their application will be sent to their service to approve before being sent to the VA database.
For information on the transferability process, servicemembers should contact their service, and for use of the transfer benefit, they should visit the VA Web site, Wilson said.
“This is a program that the VA will be administering on behalf of [the Defense Department],” Wilson said. “[The department] will be determining eligibility, so if the issue involves that of determining the eligibility, the individual will be working with [the department].
“When it comes to the point where the individual is interested in actually using the benefit, they will come to VA,” he said.
Wilson and Clark both added that the new Post-9/11 GI Bill is flexible. This flexibility applies to those servicemembers who came into the military under the Montgomery GI Bill era, but think they don’t qualify for benefits under the new 9/11 Post GI Bill.
“A person can use all of their Montgomery GI Bill benefits, then come in and apply for Chapter 33 and receive 12 more months of benefits under Chapter 33,” Wilson said. “Because they are no longer entitled to the Montgomery GI Bill, they are not giving up that entitlement; they have used up that entitlement”.
For questions on eligibility for the Post-9/11 GI Bill visit http://www.gibill.va.gov/ or contact the call center at 1-888-GIBill-1. Service information offices have information about transferability, or follow the link below to a special DefenseLink report.
(Navy Lt. Jennifer Cragg serves in the Defense Media Activity’s emerging media directorate.)