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Lawmakers pushing back against Pentagon changes to GI Bill

When Congress reconvenes after Labor Day, efforts to push back against a new Pentagon policy limiting which service members can transfer educational benefits to their family members are likely to resume.

The Pentagon announced in July that starting July 12, 2019, service members who've served for 16 years or longer won't be able to transfer their Post-9/11 GI Bill educational benefits to a spouse or child. The new policy affects members of all five military branches, as well as the commissioned members of the U.S. Public Health Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Under the change, service members still will be required to have at least six years of service before they can apply to transfer all or part of their GI Bill benefits to a dependent family member. They must be eligible for and able to serve an additional four years to have the transfer approved. Previously, service members who'd served 10 years could transfer the benefit without serving the additional four years. That won't be allowed under the updated policy.

In announcing the change, the Pentagon said it is focusing on retention ahead of a buildup in personnel, and that the transfer option is a valuable tool for incentivizing service members to stay in. 

"After a thorough review of the policy, we saw a need to focus on retention in a time of increased growth of the Armed Forces," Stephanie Miller, director of accessions policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, said in a statement. "... This change is an important step to preserve the distinction of transferability as a retention incentive."

The Pentagon didn't explicitly say why or how it chose the 16-year cut-off point or how taking away a benefit from long-serving service members could be expected to bolster retention.

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, led an effort at the end of July to write to Defense Secretary James Mattis strongly opposing the change. Eighty-three of his colleagues signed on, and Courtney said he's confident he can get more signatories when Congress is back in session.

"There's strong objection that the department is making this decision unilaterally," Courtney said by phone Thursday.

The lawmakers wrote that the new policy sends "the wrong message to those who have chosen the military as their long-term career, and sets a dangerous precedent for the removal of other critical benefits as members approach military retirement."

Courtney said the change particularly will impact reservists, many of whom have a degree of some sort, so they opt to transfer the benefit to a family member.

The Pentagon is preparing its response to the lawmakers. Courtney said he hopes the response provides a better understanding of the reason for the change, and would like to see a cost analysis and a study of how it would affect retention.

During fiscal year 2016, there were 132,666 beneficiaries who received transferred benefits from a service member or veteran, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Of those, 98,099 were children, while 34,567 were spouses. In Connecticut, there were about 3,800 people who used the GI Bill benefits in fiscal year 2016, according to VA data.

This past spring semester, about 75 students at the University of Connecticut used GI Bill benefits, according to Alyssa Kelleher, a major in the Connecticut National Guard and director of UConn’s Veterans Affairs and Military Programs.

There are about 35,100 active duty, reserves and National Guard members with 16 or more years of service, who have eligible dependents and who have not transferred their benefits, according to the Pentagon.

"These members have a year to affect a transfer of benefits, therefore, we believe this policy will have minimal impact to the force," Jessica Maxwell, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said by email.


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