WASHINGTON — Both chambers of Congress are proposing ambitious bipartisan changes to the GI Bill aimed to bridge the pay and benefits gap between active-duty troops and National Guard members.
The measure introduced this week, the Guard and Reserve GI Bill Parity Act of 2020, would mandate all days served in uniform would accumulate toward education benefits, regardless of duty status, potentially opening up millions of dollars in federal benefits to thousands of troops.
“If members of the guard and reserves do similar jobs and face similar risks as other service members, then they deserve the same benefits,” Rep. Mike Levin, D-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs subpanel on economic opportunity, said in a statement. “This common-sense legislation will finally bring basic fairness for servicemembers who spend months away from family and risk their lives for our country, but have not received the benefits they deserve.”
Pay disparity has been a key topic in veteran policy circles on Capitol Hill with some lawmakers and advocacy groups asserting the National Guard gets the short end of the stick when it comes to pay and benefits despite performing the same duty at home and abroad.
“The men and women of the National Guard work tirelessly alongside their active-duty and reservist counterparts, often accomplishing the exact same mission but receiving very different benefits,” said Daniel Elkins, legislative director of the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States.
To qualify for post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, troops have to complete at least 90 days of active duty. More days of active-duty service leads to more generous GI Bill benefits, unlike stateside service, which doesn’t earn Guard troops any federal education benefits.
Typical National Guard service doesn’t fall into the active-duty bracket, with many Guard troops banking on their deployments overseas to cover a lot of the costs of living while going to school. With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down and Guard units being less utilized overseas, there are fewer opportunities for soldiers to build their education benefits.
The average National Guard soldier serves roughly 45 days a year, according to a study from Rand Corp., a number which could wildly fluctuate depending on a soldier’s training schedule. Veterans earn 100% of their GI Bill after 36 months of active service, meaning without a deployment, it could still take Guard troops nearly two decades of domestic service to reach their maximum education benefits.
GI Bill eligibility for National Guard troops created confusion last year when thousands of troops stationed at the U.S.-Mexico border were not earning benefits, setting off months of debate between the Defense Department and congressional lawmakers, despite troops mostly deployed under Title 32(f) orders, which entitles troops to federal benefits.
Maj. Gen. Dawne Deskins, director of manpower and personnel at the National Guard Bureau, testified before Congress in October about the matter, saying she was uncertain about how GI Bill accrual works during stateside deployments. After nearly a year of confusion, Defense Secretary Mark Esper affirmed troops performing active service responding to a national emergency declaration by the president will accrue GI Bill benefits.
The House bill was introduced by Levin, Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., and Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio. The same measure was also introduced in the Senate by Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.
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