There are currently 56 senators –including 10 Republicans – who have joined Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA)’s effort to dramatically expand educational benefits for returning veterans. The 21st Century GI Bill would pay a significant portion of college costs for all service members, including national guard members, who served in active duty after Sept. 11, 2001.
The Pentagon and the White House oppose the bill, however, apparently “out of fear that too many will use it.” In a press briefing today, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell explained the administration’s opposition, warning of the “harm” Webb’s bill would do to troop retention and objecting to the generous benefits given after “only” two years of service:
We have no issue with the fact that Senator Webb wishes to provide a more generous education benefit to troops. But we are certainly concerned that this would be eligible to them after only two years of service. We think pegging it to a longer period of service — the number we have in mind, at this point, is six years of service — that the longer you stay in, the sweeter the benefits are to you. Six years would show a commitment to service. … The last thing we want to do is provide a benefit — or the last thing we want to do is create a situation in which we are losing our men and women who we have worked so hard to train.
Morrell suggests that those who serve their country for a full two years somehow do not show “a commitment to service” and are thus undeserving of Webb’s generous benefits. Under Morrell’s terms, a soldier who participated in the invasion of Baghdad, in April of 2003, and had remained in service ever since would be forced to wait a whole year before becoming eligible for full benefits.
As the New York Times’ Bob Herbert pointed out, more robust educational benefits will only help the military fill its enlistment quotas with qualified Americans. He took opponents of Webb’s bill to task for failing our troops:
The notion that expanding educational benefits will have a negative effect on retention seems silly. The Webb bill would cover tuition at a rate comparable to the highest tuition at a state school in the state in which the veteran would be enrolled. That kind of solid benefit would draw talented individuals into the military in large numbers. … Politicians tend to talk very, very big about supporting our men and women in uniform. But time and again — whether it’s about providing armor for their safety or an education for their future — we find that talk to be very, very cheap.
As VoteVets chairman Jon Soltz and Gen. Wesley Clark wrote recently, “it is morally reprehensible to fix the system so that civilian life is unappealing to service members, in an attempt to force them to re-up.”