March 03, 2008

Wyden Co-Sponsors "21st Century GI Bill"

Legislation led by Senators Webb, Hagel, Lautenberg and Warner will expand educational opportunities for veterans

Washington, D.C. - Arguing that "soldiers who share the same foxhole for the same length of time should get the same benefit," U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) announced his support today for the "Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act" (S.22). Reintroduced late yesterday, the legislation commonly referred to as the "21st Century GI Bill" will provide service members who have served since September 11, 2001 with improved educational benefits similar to those provided to World War II-era veterans. As Wyden noted the legislation will provide Oregon members of the National Guard and Reserves who have been deployed overseas with the same educational benefits enjoyed by active duty service members.

Forty-one Senators are co-sponsoring the legislation including the bill's four lead co-sponsors: U.S. Senators Jim Webb (D-VA), Chuck Hagel (R-NE), Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Senator John Warner (R-VA).

S.22 has been endorsed by the American Legion, the Military Officers' Association of America (MOAA), the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), the Air Force Sergeants Association (AFSA), the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States (EANGUS), the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), and the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges (NASULGC).

Wyden included the following statement in the Congressional Record to announce his support:


Mr. WYDEN. Mr. President, this chamber has recently been consumed by discussion of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obviously, we don't all agree on this issue. But there are a few things that I think we can agree on.

We can agree that the brave men and women serving their country overseas and at home are doing a superb job. We can agree that we have the finest fighting force the world has ever known. And we can agree that our veterans deserve benefits for the sacrifices they make and the risks they take while serving their country.

For nearly 65 years, one of those benefits has been affordable access to a college education when they return from war. Commonly called the GI Bill, this benefit is widely recognized as one of the best pieces of legislation ever passed by Congress. Unfortunately, for many Oregonian citizen soldiers this benefit has remained just out of reach.

Oregon has no large active duty military bases, and most Oregonians who serve their country do so in the National Guard or Reserves. They stay trained and ready, and when our nation needs them they fight bravely. But when the fighting is over, they return to their communities and their jobs. And, all too often, their sacrifice is not rewarded the way it is for members of the active duty force.

An active duty soldiers can collect GI Bill benefit even after they leave the military. However, if a member of the Oregon National Guard wants to attend Portland State University after fighting in Iraq for a year, he or she must stay in the Guard, risking another deployment, to collect his or her benefits.

I believe that as a matter of basic fairness, soldiers who share the same foxhole for the same length of time should get the same benefit. Some people say "That's too logical for government." But fortunately, Senators Webb and Warner recognizing this basic inequity have written a bill to correct this problem, and generally modernize the GI Bill.

I firmly believe education should be both available and affordable to all service men and women, and it for this reason that I am proud to stand today in support of the "Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act."

Many service members who volunteered to join the armed forces after September 11, 2001, did so with the full knowledge that they'd very likely be called to serve in harm's way. Over 600,000 members of the nation's Guard and Reserve have been called to active duty. Since our nation came under attack, more than half of the Oregon National Guard has deployed overseas. Oregon's deployment rate has ranked among the highest per capita in the nation. The National Guard has done much more than they have historically been called upon to do, and at great sacrifice. This bill honors all who have served on active duty on or after September 11, 2001 by expanding the educational benefits provided under current law.

The cost of higher education has increased dramatically in recent years. Over the past five years, the average cost of tuition has increased 35 percent. Room and board costs have also risen on average over 35 percent. Many of our service members have put their educational plans on hold while at war, and the rising cost of education has outpaced their ability to pay. This has put them at a competitive disadvantage in a nation that has called them to service. This bill would put them back on equal footing. Service members, including activated Guard and Reserve members, who have served on active duty for at least three months would be entitled to benefits under this bill.

As with previous GI bills, this bill would secure tuition payments, a monthly stipend to assist with living expenses, and a stipend for books and required educational expenses. This bill would go a step farther, however. Instead of recognizing an activated reservist's longest consecutive active service, this bill would recognize cumulative active service. This is a crucial distinction that recognizes the way we employ our forces today. Payments and stipends would be scaled up to 100 percent. The benefits would be protected if a service member is deployed or transferred. It would contribute to licensure and certification testing and to some college-level correspondence courses. Finally, this bill would establish a new program in which colleges or universities may voluntarily agree to make up or reduce the difference between tuition costs and what the new benefits would provide. Under this program, the benefit would match a school's additional contribution dollar for dollar, up to 50 percent of the tuition difference.

This bill would not just recognize and reward our service men and women for their sacrifices. It would create a meaningful retention and recruiting tool for our active, Guard and Reserve forces, and it would provide an investment in the future of our nation by encouraging and contributing to the kinds of education and training that lead to good jobs, good pay, and economic stability. I'm proud to cosponsor the "Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act" and encourage its immediate passage so we can begin to repay the debt we owe to those who stand guard and defend our liberty.