Points of Interest: How Congress Made a Lousy Program Worse

By Tom Philpott

Bad feelings about VEAP have deepened in recent months after lawmakers, infused with good intentions but limited funds, created a schism of "haves" and "have-nots" among VEAP enrollees still on active duty. A provision in the Veterans' Benefits Improvement Act of 1996 allows VEAP enrollees, for the first time, to switch to MGIB benefits. But the House Veterans Affairs Committee, to stay within budget, set two arbitrary conditions for MGIB eligibility: Enrollees must have been on active duty the day the President signed the bill, which was 9 October 1996; they also must have been VEAP participants on that date. Lawyers for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) say "participants" refers to persons with cash in their VEAP accounts.

A growing chorus of critics say that is grossly unfair for a reason that now embarrasses both the services and the VA: For years, education counselors advised VEAP enrollees to keep zero balances in their accounts until immediately before separation or retirement. The arbitrary requirement to have a cash balance leaves only 40% of active duty VEAP enrollees—or 71,000 service members—eligible to upgrade their education benefits. They have until 8 October 1997 to contact military education offices to convert to MGIB. The remaining 60%—107,000 careerists with 11 to 19 years of service—are stuck with VEAP.

"It's an injustice," said Mark Bovee, a chief warrant officer 4 at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, South Carolina. Bovee's education counselor convinced him to maintain a zero balance in his VEAP account, because it pays no interest and funds can be withdrawn or deposited any time. "The advise was, why put money in there now when I can go back later and put a lump sum in?" he said.

Army Master Sergeant Brian Wells, now attending the Sergeant's Major Academy at Fort Bliss, Texas, says as a young soldier at Fort Knox, Kentucky, in 1979, he got the same advice from the education office on post. "The counselor recommended I withdraw the money, put it in an interest-bearing account, and, before leaving service, make a lump sum deposit to restore the full benefit," Wells said. The counselor further assured him that an empty account "is still active," Wells recalled.

An Air Force officer enrolled in VEAP said word began to spread last summer, at least in the Pentagon, that enrollees should return some money to their accounts to ensure eligibility under the bill then moving through Congress. This officer re-deposited $50 and soon expects to shift to the MGIB. Bovee compared that kind of action to "insider trading" on Wall Street. "Word should have been passed before legislation was signed to get as many people as possible to convert to the GI Bill," he said.

Donna St. John, a spokeswoman for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said the VA has "yet to determine if we will pursue a legislative remedy" to extend MGIB benefits to all active duty members still under VEAP. The money will have to be found in the VA budget, but Defense Department officials say they favor such legislation. "If somebody was counseled to take their money out—and that was reasonable advice—you would expect to take care of them," said Frederick Pang, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Force Management Policy.  "[Current] law bars that, so we'll have to do it in two steps, rather than one."

Estimates of sea service people left in the cold are 27,700 sailors (67% of active Navy VEAP enrollees), 12,900 Marines (84% of active Marine Corps VEAP enrollees), and 3,200 Coast Guardsmen (73% of active Coast Guard VEAP enrollees). But these enrollees are not the only ones feeling forgotten. The law ignores tens of thousands of VEAP enrollees who separated from service years, months, or even days before the bill was signed. It also does nothing for hundreds of thousands of current and former service members who declined to enroll in VEAP believing from the start that it was a second-rate benefit—and never suspecting it might be their ticket, years later, to something better.

Wells said anyone offered only VEAP—whether or not they took it, whether or not they kept money in their account, whether or not they remained on active duty—deserves a crack at a better education package. "A lot of these guys defended the country for almost 20 years," Wells said. Congress "should do what's right. And that means opening [MGIB] to everybody who served." 

 

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