Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Support Our Troops (for real): A Missed Opportunity by President Obama

My husband wrote this editorial to raise awareness about the recent changes to the Post-9/11 GI Bill. If you'd like to sign the petition to establish a "grandfather clause" for veterans currently enrolled in colleges and universities to continue to receive benefits at the rate initially promised, here's the link:


As Americans, we are a patriotic people.  You can drive down any street in America and, more often than not, you will see storefronts and cars decorated with yellow ribbons that state, “Support Our Troops”.  Unfortunately, our government’s current actions don’t reflect the deep commitment that most Americans feel toward their military servicemembers. I listened to President Obama praise our servicemen and women during his State of the Union address last Tuesday night and talk about bringing our troops home, but what happens to the troops once we bring them home?  President Obama did not address this question on Tuesday night, though I assure you that our veterans are waiting for an answer.

I served my country as a junior officer in the United States Navy for 9 years, and I was faced with a tough decision as to whether or not to continue my military career this past July.  Ultimately, I decided to leave the service and take advantage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill.  The Post-9/11 GI Bill is the single most influential piece of legislation pertaining to educating our servicemen and women since Franklin Roosevelt approved the Montgomery GI Bill in 1944 to allow returning World War II veterans to receive education benefits.  In short, the Post-9/11 GI Bill is a renewed and revised version of the original GI Bill, as it provides financial assistance to veterans attending institutions of higher learning.  Each eligible member receives tuition and fees assistance, based on a rate that varies from state to state, as well as a housing allowance and a stipend to purchase books and supplies.  Not every veteran is eligible to receive 100% of the tuition benefits.  Serving 90 days of aggregate service after September 11, 2001 earns a veteran 40% of the tuition benefits while serving a minimum of 36 months allows a veteran to receive the full 100% of the benefits of the Post 9/11 GI Bill. This kind of legislation has the potential to change—maybe even save—veterans’ lives as they embark on the difficult task of re-integrating into society after their service commitment ends.

I was extremely proud of our government in its foresighted attempt to provide returning men and women that nobly served their country in Iraq and Afghanistan an opportunity for higher education, which would enable them to make the leap into important positions in American society. Servicemen and women gain an invaluable education during their time in the military.  Nowhere else can you get a master’s level education in responsibility, leadership,adaptability, compassion, and working under extreme pressure.  These brave men and women also bring an experience back to society that has been increasingly undervalued in the re-invigorated, Tea Party-esque American isolationist movement: they have actually set foot outside of the United States and have seen how people in the world live and how they view Americans.  I can tell you from first-hand experience that serving one’s country abroad brings a greater understanding of how important America’s role is to rest of the world.  This understanding, I believe, is an essential one required of tomorrow’s leaders, and the Post-9/11 GI Bill provides the kind of higher education that would enable returning veterans to transition into leadership roles in business and government after their service and put their unique skills and knowledge to use for the public good. The Post-9/11 GI Bill provides a pathway toward that end, but only if we make several important changes.

Currently, the Bill allows servicemembers to receive tuition assistance at a value based on a state-by-state tuition rate.  For example, New York’s tuition assistance rate is $1010 per credit hour while Oklahoma’s rate is $472, as the cost of education and living expenses in New York are significantly higher than they are in Oklahoma. However, Congress has recently drastically changed the Post-9/11 GI Bill after only one year in existence.  I applaud some of the changes that our elected leaders have made.  For example, Congress increased the types of programs covered by the GI Bill.  Previously, only veterans that were physically attending a college or university were eligible for a living allowance; the new change allows veterans enrolled in a distance-learning program to also be eligible for the same housing allowance.  However, legislators overlooked one key issue in “fixing” this legislation.  Congress has now capped tuition assistance to a national flat rate of $17,500 annually.

I am currently in my second semester at Columbia Business School.  This change has effectively reduced my tuition assistance by 50%.  While the drop is a dramatic one, as I made the decision to leave the military counting on a certain amount of benefits, I am fortunate to have a wife with a full-time job and some money in savings.  However, what about the 21-year-old veteran who earned admission to Harvard or Columbia as an undergraduate and is now facing the same problem?  The reduction in tuition assistance could force this young man or woman to have to leave an incredible institution and miss a once in a lifetime opportunity.  It is unconscionable for the federal government to renege on the commitment it made to fund that veteran’s education and hang him or her out to dry.

Too many politicians wave the“veteran” flag to say that they “support the troops” when, in fact, very few of them have ever served this country or have children or spouses who have served time in the military.  In fact, the reality is quite the opposite: many members of Congress were afforded the opportunities to attend the most premier educational institutions this country has to offer without having to worry about where their next tuition payment would come from.  Isn’t it time that we offered those men and women whose boots are on the ground carrying out the policies that Washington enacts the same kinds of advantages that their senators have had?  If a veteran is able to earn admission to a premier private institution, shouldn’t he or she be afforded the opportunity to take advantage of that opportunity?  Perhaps if that were the case, we’d have more veterans running for office and providing this country the benefits of their military experiences as policy-makers with first-hand knowledge of the daunting issues currently facing our legislators.

I urge the ladies and gentlemen of the 112th Congress to make this mistake right.  First, immediately create a “grandfather” clause to allow the veterans already enrolled in school to finish their degrees at the current funding levels to avoid forcing veterans to leave school before the new changes are enacted on August 1, 2011.  Secondly, the tuition assistance amount needs to be readdressed.  We shouldn’t be “capping” our expectations on the types of institutions to which we think these men and women would be able to gain admission.  Setting the national tuition rate at $17,500 effectively limits the range of schools to which a veteran can apply and effectively eliminates top-tier private schools as an option for veterans. (Undergraduate tuition and fees at Harvard, for example, costs in excess of $47,000 a year.)

If the members of Congress really believe in the yellow ribbons and the American flags that they pin on their lapels, now is the time to show it. Symbols are cheap—a concrete pledge to the men and women risking their lives for our security at home is a rich source of investment for our nation’s future.