Sunday, October 14, 2007

Bush Administration Treats Iowa’s Guard Like Temp Workers

While the front-end costs of funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan hold steady, the Bush Administration keeps finding ways to skim costs on the back end. Using a cost-cutting technique perfected by the booming temporary-worker industry, the Bush Administration has not only exhausted the National Guard to supplement the surge in Iraq, but has also shortchanged soldiers upon their return by denying them full-time education benefits.

Referred to as the “Ironman Battalion,” over 600 members of the Iowa National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry, who recently returned from Iraq after a 22-month deployment, found out they don’t qualify for full-time educational benefits under provisions of the Montgomery GI Bill. To qualify, soldiers must have served 20 consecutive months on active duty, with orders reflecting a call to active duty of 730 days. Despite exceeding the 20-month requirement, many members of the 133rd are currently being denied these benefits, because the wording of their orders leave their active duty call just short of the 730-day requirement.

Soldiers who qualify for Montgomery GI Bill benefits can receive up to $894 per month to be used for educational expenses, which can be used for up to 10 years after leaving the service. Reserve soldiers who do not qualify for GI Bill benefits can receive up to $660 per month under the Reserve Education Assistance Program (REAP). These benefits expire when reserve members leave the service. Members of the Minnesota National Guard 1st Brigade, 34th Infantry—whom the 133rd deployed to Iraq with—are experiencing a similar problem.

Each soldier has individual orders, and in some cases they were for 725 to 729 days of active duty - just short of the 730 days required, Lt. Col. Gregory Hapgood, public affairs officer for the Iowa National Guard told the Des Moines Register. "So they've spent the better part of two years of their lives on active duty, a great deal of that in combat, and to come up a couple days short on orders and be denied benefits just doesn't seem judicious," Hapgood said.

Iowa’s Commander-in-Chief, Gov. Chet Culver was quick to defend the 133rd and went on the offensive by sending a letter to Army Secretary Pete Geren. Culver’s letter expressed his “extreme disappointment” and requested the Army to reconsider its decision denying education benefits to members of the 133rd. “As you are aware, these soldiers were deployed longer than any other ground combat unit with a tour of 22 months foregoing time with family and employment responsibilities -- all while risking their own lives for longer than anticipated,” Culver wrote. “Beyond our respect, these soldiers deserve the benefits provided by a grateful nation for their honorable service. Anything less is simply unacceptable.”

The news also sparked the ire of members representing both sides of Iowa’s political delegation, including Reps. Tom Latham, R-4th District, and Bruce Braley, D-1st District. Both members also sent letters to Army Secretary Green this past week expressing their concerns about the denial of the 133rd’s educational benefits.

Latham said he was very concerned that the orders for some soldiers brought them within one or several days of the 730 days on active duty needed to earn full GI Bill benefits. "These soldiers have clearly earned active-duty education benefits by serving a full two years on active duty, and it would be unfair to deny them based on a technicality," Latham wrote.

Braley, aware of the bureaucracy at the federal level, also voiced concerns in his letter by honing in on expediency factors while simultaneously holding the military accountable. “I also request that you provide me with information on all of the steps that the Army and the Army Board for Correction of Military Records are taking to ensure that these cases are resolved quickly and smoothly, and that you provide me with a timeline detailing when the Army Board for Correction of Military Records will take up the cases, when a decision will be made by the Board, and when the members of the 1-133rd can expect to be granted the full Montgomery GI Bill benefits that they so deserve,” Braley wrote.

Because Guard members educational benefits expire once they leave the military, it’s imperative that the Army remedy the situation before it’s too late. Hapgood admitted to the Des Moines Register that there is no quick and easy fix to the problem. "You're talking about something that has to be fixed at the Department of the Army level," he said.

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