Friday, June 20, 2008

New GI Bill Survives the Right Way, the Congressional Way and the Bush Way

When it comes to updating the 64-year-old GI Bill, a military adage comes to mind: There is the right way, the wrong way and the President Bush way. After reaching a more costly compromise that would avert Bush’s veto pen, the House voted Thursday to approve the 21st-century GI Bill.

Bush is expected to sign the latest version of the bill, which prompted Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., to issue a statement regarding the president’s pledge. “For the past 17 months, I and my staff have been working every day to provide first-class educational benefits to those who have served since 9/11,” Webb said. “I am delighted that after having opposed this legislation, the President has now pledged that he will not veto it when it comes before him as part of this year’s supplemental appropriations package.

“I would like to again express my appreciation to the veterans’ service organizations, many of whom communicated their support of this bill directly to a skeptical White House, and to the 58 Senate and 302 House cosponsors of this landmark legislation,” Webb said. “This bipartisan coalition consistently rejected the allegations of this Administration, and of Senators McCain, Burr and Graham, among others, who claimed that the bill was too generous to our veterans, too difficult to administer and would hurt retention.”

While simultaneously praising the passage of the war-funding bill, Republican presidential nominee John McCain of Arizona voiced his reservations: “I am pleased an agreement has finally been reached to fund our troops,” McCain said in a statement. "That [retention] has always been my primary concern with respect to the Webb bill, and it is essential that we continue to act decisively to encourage military service and ensure the well being of our All Volunteer Force.”

The Congressional Way

But how the bill finally reached Bush’s desk gives new meaning to the definition of quagmire.

The bill, originally introduced by Webb, had bipartisan support early on, but it hit a few snags in Congress, including the threat of a revolt from members of the Blue Dog Democrats and objections from McCain.

McCain, who sided with the Bush administration’s reasoning in refusing to support Webb’s version, offered his own version, which was immediately shot down in the Senate. Citing the same reasons as Bush did in explaining why the president planned on vetoing the measure, McCain objected to giving veterans, after serving only a few years, an education benefit equivalent to the tuition of a state’s highest-priced public institution. McCain voiced concerns that Webb’s bill would persuade service members to leave the military early and pursue higher education.

Webb’s version passed with overwhelming bipartisan support by a vote 75-22. McCain, however, was AWOL on the day of the vote, reportedly raising money in California for his presidential bid.

The bill moved to the House, where it initially appeared it would receive veto-proof support from both parties. However, some members of the moderate Blue Dog Democrats threatened to revolt, citing the "pay as you go" budget rules that require new benefit programs be financed with offsetting spending cuts or new taxes so as not to increase the budget deficit. They argued that the war funding bill is an emergency appropriation, but the veterans' education funding is a new mandatory benefit program that's supposed to be subject to the budget rule.

"It's the principle involved of not putting a mandatory program of any kind on an emergency supplemental," Rep. John Tanner, D-Tenn., told the AP.

However, not all the Blue Dogs shared this view or threatened to revolt, including Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa, a 20-year Army veteran, who was one of the 277 House members co-sponsoring the new legislation.

Boswell's chief of staff, Susan McAvoy, told the Iowa Independent that the opposition was not officially endorsed by the Blue Dog coalition. "Boswell informed his colleagues where he stood prior to any debate on the bill," McAvoy said. "Rep. Boswell is very supportive of veterans and would not do anything that would keep the new GI Bill from moving forward in the House."

Despite the House’s most recent compromise with the administration, some of the Blue Dog Democrats are still upset with the $62 billion price tag on the GI Bill benefits, which will be added to the deficit instead of being “paid for” as called for under House rules.

The Bush Way

All during the congressional process, Bush had threatened to veto the new GI Bill because of the costs, but ironically, the administration pushed for a compromise that would boost the funding an additional $10 billion over 10 years.

The White House wanted to add a provision that would allow troops to transfer their educational benefits to their spouses or children.

In an interview with the AP, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., responded to the White House push: "It's like the Yogi Berra story: 'I don't like that restaurant. Besides, the portions aren't large enough. They don't like it, but they want more."

"It's not a bad idea," Pelosi added. "It just costs money."

And it looks like the compromise process yielded just that: a GI Bill that will cost more money.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Vets Coordinator Helps Ease Soldiers' Transition to UI Student Life

Like most veterans transitioning from the military to academic life, John Mikelson, 48, does not fit the traditional mold of most college students. After taking a 25-year hiatus from college, most of which was spent on active duty in the military, Mikelson returned to the University of Iowa in 2005.

“I found out I was unemployable,” Mikelson told the Iowa Independent during an interview. “Twenty-five years of military experience doesn’t mean anything to a civilian employer. I had comparable civilian experience for jobs I was seeking, but when potential employers discovered I didn’t have a degree, they told me to come back when I had one.”

Mikelson did just that. He recently earned his Bachelor of Arts in history and is currently enrolled in a graduate program, Higher Education in Policy and Leadership Studies. Moreover, Mikelson balances his academics with his position as the UI veterans coordinator, a full-time work-study position equally funded by the UI and the VA.

“My ultimate goal is to make the veterans coordinator job a permanent paid position on this campus and every public university campus across the country,” Mikelson said. “I think there is a need for transition centers like this one at the UI. When soldiers get demobilized, the military tells them everything they need to know in three days, but all they want is to see their spouses and family waiting on the other side of the fence.

“It’s like trying to catch a sip from a fire hose,” Mikelson said, “and when they hit the campus they realize they don’t know what they are doing.”

Mikelson, along with McKinley Bailey who now serves on the veterans committee of the Iowa House of Representatives, helped start the UI Student Veterans Association in 2005. Working through this association, members procured space to start a veterans center in 2006, which helped lay the foundation for the creation of Mikelson’s coordinator position.

The UI has around 300 veterans enrolled in classes this semester, and Mikelson’s job is to reach out to this targeted population and serve their specific needs should any problems arise during a student’s academic life. These issues range from helping a student veteran find a real estate agent who understands VA loans to helping a disabled veteran find employment in the community.

“We keep our ROCH book, or Reach Out and Call for Help, updated at all times,” Mikelson said. “This is filled with everything from information regarding current GI Bill benefits to congressional contact information. The key to outreach is knowing who to call, and we’ve already reached out to several academic advisers who are veterans. Because the military has its own language, vernacular and idiosyncrasies, it’s been helpful having contacts who speak the military language.”

Student vets face unique issues

As a veterans coordinator, Mikelson deals with a plethora of issues and concerns facing students, whether it’s before, during, or after deployment. “A common question I get from students is whether they should start classes if they know they are going to be deployed before midterm,” he said. “Midterm is the cutoff where they can receive credit or a refund. They also have the option of taking an incomplete and finishing the course after they return.”

Mikelson says that it’s more common for students to find out during the semester that they are going to be deployed by semester’s end. “When this happens, we have to sit down and evaluate what’s the best course of action for each case. The main goal is that nobody should be penalized for being deployed.”

“Professors have been very accommodating,” Mikelson said. “Most problems we’ve encountered were due to ignorance on either side, whether the student didn’t explain things very well or the professor wasn’t aware of the specifics of policy.”

Transitioning back into civilian and academic life poses other concerns, both mentally and physically, that Mikelson helps student veterans address. “We have our share of traumatic brain injuries (TBI),” he said. “Thanks to improved body armor and evacuation procedures, what would have killed us in WW II or Vietnam, is simply not the case in today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead of coming back in body bags, soldiers are returning with lasting brain injuries. It’s the equivalency of adult shaken-baby syndrome."

One major problem with treating TBI is the diagnostic phase, because a lot of soldiers fear stigmatic repercussions, Mickelson said, and won’t admit they have a problem. “They’ve been told over and over that they are supermen and women, and they just need to suck it up,” Mickelson said. “When they get to the UI, they realize it’s more than a little pain. TBI is just as much an injury as a physical one; it’s the sucking chest wound of the mind.”

Mikelson is encouraged by VA and military efforts to remove the stigma. “We have been working with the VA’s peer-to-peer counselor program, outreach coordinators, and other means that are less threatening to our veterans,” Mikelson said. “The Iowa Guard has been doing really good things with its Operation Enduring Families program. After demobilization, Guard and Reservists have 90 days before they go back to drill. During the first 30 days, they have a mandatory gathering with their spouse or next of kin to gauge any problems that may have surfaced since their return to civilian life.”

Problems regarding educational benefits earned through the GI Bill have come up over the past few years, but Mikelson is optimistic the 21st Century GI Bill will address some of these concerns. “Last year, a number of people were told they didn’t qualify for the higher benefits, but after a long fight between the VA and the Department of Defense, it was determined veterans had 14 years after separation to utilize their enhanced benefits,” Mikelson said. “And despite the DoD’s retention concerns, a recent report indicates that retention rates have not been adversely effected.”

Two things Mikelson said he likes about the new GI Bill, which currently sits on President Bush’s desk, is that it will do away with the $1,200 buy-in stipulation. “New enlistees should not be paying this at a time in their lives when they can least afford it,” he said. “I also like that it will pay the benefits up front when the tuition is due and students need money for books.”

“The current GI bill was designed in peace time and has not kept pace with the rising costs of education,” Mikelson said. “Veterans tend to be older students and have spouses and dependents they are supporting, so it’s a challenge to make ends meet. A number of veterans are trying to balance family with full-time classes and full-time employment, not to mention they have the additional challenge of readjusting to civilian life. I think the new GI Bill benefits will help ease some of these burdens.”

Friday, June 6, 2008

Guard’s Revolving Door: One Iowa Unit Deploys While Another Returns

In a span of three days, Iowans said goodbye to 160 of the state's National Guard soldiers as they deployed to Iraq, while simultaneously preparing for the homecoming of 120 guardsmen.

Three community sendoff ceremonies were held on Thursday for a Boone-based Iowa Army National Guard unit deployed as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the global war on terror.

Approximately 160 Soldiers are being mobilized from Company B, 248th Aviation Support Battalion (formerly known as Company D, 109th Aviation), Iowa Army National Guard. The unit is based in Boone, with detachments in Waterloo (Detachment 3) and Davenport (Detachment 4). The unit will travel to its mobilization station at Fort Sill, Okla., for additional training before deploying to the Central Command theater of operations.

The unit’s mission is to provide aviation maintenance support to a combat aviation brigade, which includes aircraft diagnostics, repair, maintenance and testing. The unit will be serving its third deployment since the 9/11 attacks in 2001, including a mobilization from November 2001 to November 2002, and again from February to December 2003.

833rd returning home from Iraq

Meanwhile, a homecoming ceremony for an Ottumwa-based Army National Guard unit, the 833rd Engineer Company (formerly known as Company B, 224th Engineer Battalion), will be held at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at the Hellyer Student Life Center, Indian Hills Community College – the same venue where community members bade farewell to the 833rd nearly a year ago.

Approximately 120 soldiers of the 833rd were mobilized to Fort McCoy, Wis., last June, before being deployed to the Central Command Theater of Operations in Iraq. The unit is completing its second tour of duty in less than four years. During its previous deployment to Iraq from October 2004 through December 2005, the unit earned recognition for its abilities and expertise in finding and defusing improvised explosive devices.

The 833rd’s mission was to increase the combat effectiveness of United States and coalition forces by removing physical obstacles, identifying and reducing minefields and explosive devices, executing mobility missions, emplacing barriers, constructing protective positions and performing infantry missions as required.

During their deployment, soldiers of the 833rd Engineer Co. conducted 495 combat patrols and found 100 IEDs and 13 pieces of unexploded ordnance. They successfully destroyed 55 of these explosive devices in place, clearing more than 40,000 miles of roads, making them safer for coalition forces.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Iowa Guard's Readiness Strained by Iraq Deployments

Multiple deployments to Iraq by Iowa’s National Guard have not only taken their toll on the wear-and-tear of unit equipment needs, but servicemen, their families and their employers have felt the strain – physically, mentally and economically.

These shortcomings have not gone unnoticed by one Iowa congressman

In the wake of the House’s approval of the National Defense Authorization Act recently, Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, who serves on the House Armed Service Committee, met with Iowa National Guard officers at the Iowa City Readiness Center May 24 to assess the readiness levels of the Guard. Because of the continued presence in Iraq, National Guard units, on average, have only 63 percent of their required equipment.

“We have huge equipment concerns, especially now with multiple deployments overseas, so we need to replenish the equipment losses,” Loebsack said. “We are at about 60 percent readiness of what we need here with the Iowa National Guard. That is why we’ve authorized more money for equipment in the Defense Authorization Act.”

The bill authorizes nearly $2 billion for unfunded readiness initiatives and authorizes $800 million to provide the National Guard and Reserve with critically needed equipment. Additionally, it protects our troops in harm’s way by authorizing $2.6 billion for additional Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, $947 million for additional Up-Armored Humvees, and $783 million for the continued procurement and enhancement of personal body armor.

“Clearly, there is a shortfall and we are trying to remedy this situation. The idea is to get up to 75 percent of what the Guard needs over the course of the next two years,” Loebsack said. “Our National Guard is doing a fantastic job. We’ve seen a change in operations as far as the mission with the Guard is concerned, and they are really picking up the slack and doing great things overseas.”

Shifting the role of the Guard

Brig. Gens. Mark Zirkelbach of the Army National Guard and Doug Pierce of the Iowa Air National Guard cited the Guard’s shift of operation as the biggest challenge threatening readiness.

“The Guard has changed since the Global War on Terror began,” Zirkelbach (pictured left) said. “We’ve moved from what we called a strategic reserve, which would deploy only once, until the draft kicked in and help proved the adequate manpower needed to be fully operational.

“This is how we died it in WW II, Korea, and Vietnam,” Zirkelbach said. “Today, we have an all-volunteer force, which is an operational force, meaning, instead of relying on a draft, Guard members will serve multiple deployments to help replenish manpower.”

Echoing Zirkelbach’s assessment, Pierce (pictured right) said: “We are matching and doing the same mission at the same rate as the active-duty members. We have good equipment; it’s just that we are using it more often and wearing it out at a faster rate.

“The problem has come to the surface now because of our continued rotations,” Pierce said. “We’ve been going overseas since 1996, but recent deployments have put more of a strain on our equipment and personnel."

Moreover, Pierce said, one of the biggest challenges the Guard faces is keeping pace with the operation’s tempo and subsequent wear-and-tear on the equipment. “We are using more equipment and using equipment more often, so it tends to wear out faster," Pierce said. “We need recapitalization and new acquisition of the airplanes and equipment we already possess.”

Taking care of the troops

Another aspect facing the Guard’s readiness is the impact the current wars have had and will have on the troops, their families, their employers and recruitment of new members. “We also need to have more people in the Guard, too,” Loebsack said. “They’re doing a great job recruiting, but beyond that we need to be concerned with the troops’ physical and mental health as well.”

Regarding enlistment, Zirkelbach said: “We will enlist more people this month than will separate from the service. The Iowa Guard will grow this month.”

Sharing equipment

The recently passed appropriations won’t go into effect until next year, so in the meantime, the Guards will have to use alternative means to procure equipment for their deployment needs.

“The shortages in the Air Guard aren’t as prevalent as they are in the Army Guard,” Pierce said. “However, I do foresee future issues regarding our current F-16s in Des Moines. They are older models, and because we are using them more frequently, I can see them wearing out much sooner.

“One way to address concern is by sharing equipment and planes with other units in Madison, Wis., and Great Falls, Mont.,” Pierce said. “We’ve been doing this long enough, so we have a pretty good checklist of what equipment impacts the unit the least when sent over to help the troops in the theater.”

Moreover, Zirkelbach said that units that have been alerted for deployment are receiving equipment through procurement and that if the procurements aren’t sufficient enough, then states are cross-leveling equipment to these units. “For example, we are moving some of our weapon systems, night-vision equipment and some vehicles to help other states satisfy their equipment needs,” Zirkelbach said.

Vehicles parked in the motor pool of the 109th Medical Batallion in Iowa City await next deployment orders

Zirkelbach, however, is concerned that units don’t have the proper equipment to train with before deployment, nor do they have enough full-time support to keep day-to-day operations functioning effectively and efficiently. “In order to generate readiness, we really need the equipment now in order to prepare, train and support our troops for the mission they will be conducting,” Zirlebach said. “Our full-time manning is currently less than what is required, thus creating additional work loads in providing readiness in Iowa and helping provide other states with what they need for deployment.”

Minding the home front

Given the number of weather-related disasters Iowa has faced in recent years, namely flooding and tornadoes, concerns have mounted as to whether the Guard will be prepared to adequately and efficiently handle these situations when they arise.

“We need vehicles for support and communication equipment to help speed up our response time,” Zirkelbach said. “We’ve had up to 50 percent of the Guard deployed over the last five years and we’ve managed to respond to every significant weather-related event. It has not been an issue during this time and we don’t perceive this will be a problem in the immediate future.”