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War Vets Still Struggle With Education Costs, Despite G.I. Bill Benefit

February 12, 2008 at 6:25 PM EST
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John Merrow reports on how education benefits offered through the G.I. Bill are issued to soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the renewed efforts by some members of Congress to expand the bill, which has seen reduced funding over the years.
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TV AD ANNOUNCER: As a soldier in the United States Army, you’ll find out what you’re really made of.

JOHN MERROW, NewsHour Correspondent: The military touts educational benefits in its television commercials.

TV AD ANNOUNCER: … over 150 careers, help pay for college…

JOHN MERROW: Recruiters deploy them as a marketing tool. But as many veterans have learned, the benefits aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

Former Marine Kyle Williams served two tours in Iraq. After leaving the military, he enrolled at the University of California, but was shocked by the costs.

KYLE WILLIAMS, Former Marine: At UC Davis, it’s going to cost me for the year about $25,000 between rent, books, tuition, and food and living costs.

JOHN MERROW: Williams’ GI benefits, about $10,000 for the school year, will cover less than half of that, so he’ll have to go deeply into debt.

KYLE WILLIAMS: For my first year at UC Davis, I’m looking to apply for a private loan, from about $12,000 to $15,000, hopefully to be approved for that, to cover my tuition upfront, books, and extra living costs, and rent.

JOHN MERROW: Williams had hoped his education benefits would go much further.

KYLE WILLIAMS: The fact that you’re not compensated for the type of school you want to go to or the dreams that you may have or the goals that you have is one of the most frustrating things, that not only does it hurt you, but it holds you back.

JOHN MERROW: Former Army Reservist Chris Mettler is also frustrated. He was enrolled in community college, but then was called to serve two tours in Iraq. Upon returning home, he left the Reserves to concentrate on his studies.

CHRIS METTLER, Former Army Reservist: You can’t really pursue a solid education due to all the exercises you go on annually and the deployments.

JOHN MERROW: He was getting about $800 a month in benefits. Then, a letter arrived from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

CHRIS METTLER: When I read the letter from the VA, I was pretty upset, to say the least, because they stated in there that they had overpaid me $3,800 in education benefits.

JOHN MERROW: Mettler didn’t know it, but by leaving the Reserves he had forfeited his benefits and would have to pay the money back.

CHRIS METTLER: It was a punch to the stomach from the federal government to me. I don’t think that’s right; that’s wrong in how they’re treating their veterans.

JOHN MERROW: Mettler was caught in a classic catch-22. He couldn’t pursue his education while he was in the Reserves, because he kept getting called to Iraq, but he couldn’t get his benefits because he was no longer in the Reserves.

CHRIS METTLER: They’re essentially saying that, “Oh, based on your discharge, your deployments are no longer worth anything. Your contribution to the fight was nice while it lasted, but since you don’t want to stay in the military, you know, we’re not going to continue to pay for your education.”

History of the GI Bill

Sen. James Webb
D-Va.
I've been watching this for 30 years. On the one hand, we say, 'This is the new greatest generation,' and on the other we don't even give them the type of educational benefit that will allow them to go to a good school. It's just not right.

JOHN MERROW: After World War II, the nation's commitment to its troops was beyond question. Some eight million veterans went to the colleges of their choice thanks to what's called the GI Bill.

SEN. JAMES WEBB (D), Virginia: When you compare the benefits that we gave the World War II generation, it's just no match whatsoever. Every veteran who had served in World War II, their full tuition paid for, their books bought, and a monthly stipend.

JOHN MERROW: Senator Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrat and Vietnam veteran, went to law school with help from a much leaner GI Bill. Congress began chipping away at the benefit levels after World War II, due in part to the creation of other federal and state student aid programs.

Senator Webb says veterans are frequently ineligible for those programs because they receive GI Bill money. And when they are eligible, the aid is inadequate.

SEN. JAMES WEBB: I've been watching this for 30 years. On the one hand, we say, "This is the new greatest generation," and on the other we don't even give them the type of educational benefit that will allow them to go to a good school. It's just not right.

Covering tuition, living costs

Terry Boyd
Former U.S. Marine
The GI Bill, it's good for school, but it's not good for life. It's not good for life, because people have got to live on the other side of school. They've got to do what they do in order to have a roof over their head.

JOHN MERROW: Today, enlistees pay $1,200 to sign up for the GI Bill. In return, they get $1,100 a month in educational benefits, up to a total of about $40,000; $40,000 will pay only a small fraction of the costs of a top-notch private college, but it will cover about 75 percent of the costs of a public university.

Seventy-five percent sounded good enough to Terry Boyd, a former Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. His university waves tuition for veterans, so he figured he had it made. But like a lot of vets, Boyd underestimated his living expenses.

TERRY BOYD, Former U.S. Marine: Seven hundred was the apartment, and that was including utilities, OK? Then my car came out to about $300 a month with insurance and paying it off.

JOHN MERROW: And then there were college's hidden costs: several hundred dollars for university fees, several hundred more for books. His expenses quickly outstripped his monthly benefits.

A physical fitness enthusiast, he took a job as a bouncer to earn extra money.

TERRY BOYD: Being short of money is no joke. I was really happy to come home and find out that McDonald's had the dollar menu, you know, cheeseburgers, putting a bunch of junk in my body.

JOHN MERROW: But even living on the cheap, Boyd was unable to make ends meet.

TERRY BOYD: The GI Bill, it's good for school, but it's not good for life. It's not good for life, because people have got to live on the other side of school. They've got to do what they do in order to have a roof over their head.

JOHN MERROW: Terry Boyd dropped out of Southern Illinois and enrolled at Sierra Community College in California.

COLLEGE COUNSELOR: OK, so you have these two classes. Those were done. So moving along...

JOHN MERROW: With the help of a veterans' counselor and some friends, he's learned to cut his expenses, and he's earning more money working as a personal trainer.

TERRY BOYD: I'm eating bigger meals now. I'm not eating off the dollar menu anymore, so that's nice.

Expanding benefits

Sen. James Webb
D-Va.
It's a cost of war. You know, if we're going to spend a trillion dollars on this war, the least we can do is to provide the people who have had to go and fight it the right kind of thanks.

JOHN MERROW: To stretch their GI benefits, most college-bound vets, like Terry Boyd, opt for low-cost, two-year community colleges. But many veterans who've put their lives on the line for their country argue that benefits should cover tuition and expenses at four-year universities, as well.

Senator Webb.

SEN. JAMES WEBB: It's a cost of war. You know, if we're going to spend a trillion dollars on this war, the least we can do is to provide the people who have had to go and fight it the right kind of thanks.

JOHN MERROW: The senator has introduced a bill that would put state universities within reach of all active-duty veterans.

SEN. JAMES WEBB: This bill will pay for people's tuition, will buy their books, and will give them a monthly stipend. The tuition is capped at the maximum level of a state school in the state, so that it does not abuse, and they have 15 years from the time that they leave the military in order to use it.

JOHN MERROW: It's estimated the bill would cost around $2 billion, roughly what it costs to prosecute the Iraq war for a week, according to Senator Webb.

The Bush administration argues that the bill is too expensive and that it would be difficult to administer because benefits would be different in every state.

Retaining recruits

Keith Wilson
Department of Veteran Affairs
A lot of people are using the program, more than ever in history. So to say that it would cover everybody's costs, absolutely not, but it seems to be meeting the needs of more people than ever.

JOHN MERROW: But there's another issue: Keith Wilson is the director of education service at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Is there a concern that if you raised the benefits dramatically, substantially that men and women would leave the service, go to college?

KEITH WILSON, Department of Veterans Affairs: Potentially that could happen. Then we'd get into a situation of diminishing returns, and we end up potentially losing more people than we would be gaining into the military, which would create potentially a vicious cycle.

SEN. JAMES WEBB: They don't comprehend that if you put a benefit like this one on the table, you're going to broaden your recruitment base, so you're going to have more people attracted to coming in.

KEITH WILSON: We are looking at administering the program as effectively as we can, meeting the congressional intents of the program, and they seem to be working well right now. A lot of people are using the program, more than ever in history.

So to say that it would cover everybody's costs, absolutely not, but it seems to be meeting the needs of more people than ever.

JOHN MERROW: Senator Webb's bill is under consideration in the Congress, but has a long way to go if it's to become law.

The Congress did pass one piece of legislation recently which should please Chris Mettler, who lost his education benefits because he resigned from the Reserves. It allows him and other active-duty reservists and National Guard to receive their benefits even after they leave the service.