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Hearing Transcript on Education Benefits for National Guard & Reserve Members of the U.S. Armed Forces.

 

EDUCATION BENEFITS FOR NATIONAL GUARD AND RESERVE MEMBERS OF THE U.S. ARMED FORCES

 



HEARING

BEFORE  THE

SUBCOMMITTEE ON ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITY

OF THE

COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS

U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

ONE HUNDRED TENTH CONGRESS

FIRST SESSION


MARCH 22, 2007


Printed for the use of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs

SERIAL No. 110-10

 

Snowflake

 

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COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS

BOB FILNER, California, Chairman

 

CORRINE BROWN, Florida
VIC SNYDER, Arkansas
MICHAEL H. MICHAUD, Maine
STEPHANIE HERSETH, South Dakota
HARRY E. MITCHELL, Arizona
JOHN J. HALL, New York
PHIL HARE, Illinois
MICHAEL F. DOYLE, Pennsylvania
SHELLEY BERKLEY, Nevada
JOHN T. SALAZAR, Colorado
CIRO D. RODRIGUEZ, Texas
JOE DONNELLY, Indiana
JERRY MCNERNEY, California
ZACHARY T. SPACE, Ohio
TIMOTHY J. WALZ, Minnesota

STEVE BUYER,  Indiana, Ranking
CLIFF STEARNS, Florida
JERRY MORAN, Kansas
RICHARD H. BAKER, Louisiana
HENRY E. BROWN, JR., South Carolina
JEFF MILLER, Florida
JOHN BOOZMAN, Arkansas
GINNY BROWN-WAITE, Florida
MICHAEL R. TURNER, Ohio
BRIAN P. BILBRAY, California
DOUG LAMBORN, Colorado
GUS M. BILIRAKIS, Florida
VERN BUCHANAN, Florida

 

 

 

Malcom A. Shorter, Staff Director


SUBCOMMITTEE ON ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITY
STEPHANIE HERSETH, South Dakota, Chairwoman

JOE DONNELLY, Indiana
JERRY MCNERNEY, California
JOHN J. HALL, New York
JOHN BOOZMAN, Arkansas, Ranking
RICHARD H. BAKER, Louisiana
JERRY MORAN, Kansas

Pursuant to clause 2(e)(4) of Rule XI of the Rules of the House, public hearing records of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs are also published in electronic form. The printed hearing record remains the official version. Because electronic submissions are used to prepare both printed and electronic versions of the hearing record, the process of converting between various electronic formats may introduce unintentional errors or omissions. Such occurrences are inherent in the current publication process and should diminish as the process is further refined.

 

       

C O N T E N T S
March 22, 2007


Education Benefits for National Guard and Reserve Members of the U.S. Armed Forces

OPENING STATEMENTS

Chairwoman Stephanie Herseth
   Prepared statement of Chairwoman Herseth
Hon. John Boozman, Ranking Republican Member
   Prepared statement of Congressmen John Boozman
Hon. Jerry McNerney, a Representative in Congress from the State of California
Hon. Jerry Moran, a Representative in Congress from the State of Kansas


WITNESSES

U.S. Department of Defense, Hon. Craig W. Duehring, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of
    Defense for Reserve Affairs
        Prepared statement of Mr. Duehring
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Keith M. Wilson, Director, Education Service,
    Veterans Benefits Administration
         Prepared statement of Mr. Wilson


Arkansas National Guard, Major General William D. Wofford, Adjutant General
      Prepared statement of Major General Wofford
Military Officers Association of America, Colonel Robert F. Norton, USA (Ret.),
    Deputy Director, Government Relations
      Prepared statement of Colonel Norton
National Guard Bureau, Major General Terry L. Scherling, Director, Joint Staff
      Prepared statement of Major General Scherling


SUBMISSIONS FOR THE RECORD

American Legion, Joseph C. Sharpe, Jr., Deputy Director, Economic Commission, statement
Bartlett, Hon. Roscoe G., a Representative in Congress from the State of Maryland, statement
Carney, Hon. Christopher P., a Representative in Congress from the State of Utah, statement
Matheson, Hon. Jim, a Representative in Congress from the State of Utah, statement
Reserve Officers Association and Reserve Enlisted Association, joint statement
South Dakota National Guard, Major General Michael A. Gorman, Adjutant General, and Secretary, South Dakota Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, statement


EDUCATION BENEFITS FOR NATIONAL GUARD AND RESERVE MEMBERS OF THE U.S. ARMED FORCES


Thursday, March 22, 2007
U. S. House of Representatives,
Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity,
Committee on Veterans' Affairs,
Washington, DC.

The Subcommittee met, pursuant to notice, at 2:05 p.m., in Room 340, Cannon House Office Building, Hon. Stephanie Herseth [Chairwoman of the Subcommittee] presiding.

Present:  Representatives Herseth, McNerney, Boozman, Moran.

Also present:  Representative Snyder.

OPENING STATEMENT OF CHAIRWOMAN HERSETH

Ms. HERSETH.  Good afternoon.  The Veterans' Affairs Economic Opportunity Subcommittee hearing on the Education Benefits for National Guard and Reserve Members will come to order.

Before I begin, I would like to call attention to the fact that several individuals interested in today's hearing have asked to submit a written statement for the record.  If there is no objection, I ask for unanimous consent that those statements which have been submitted by the following be allowed to be inserted for the record:

Major General Michael A. Gorman, State Adjutant General, South Dakota National Guard; Mr. Joseph C. Sharpe, Jr., The American Legion; Reserve Officers Association and Reserve Enlisted Association; Congressman Jim Matheson who represents the 2nd District in Utah; Congressman Roscoe Bartlett, who represents Maryland's 6th District; and Congressman Christopher Carney representing Pennsylvania's 10th District.

With no objection, those statements will be entered.

As the lone representative from South Dakota, which this year will have about 2,000 veterans using GI Bill payments for their education, I have an especially strong interest in exploring options to improve and modernize the Montgomery GI Bill, particularly for National Guard and Reserve servicemembers.

Ranking Member Boozman, I look forward to working with you as we did in the last Congress, and all the members of the Subcommittee, as well as our colleagues on the Armed Services Committee to update this important program.

Since the Montgomery GI Bill was enacted more than 20 years ago, our Nation's utilization of the Selected Reserve Forces has dramatically increased.

When the MGIB was signed into law in 1984, servicemembers of the Guard and Reserve were rarely mobilized, and that is simply not the reality today.  Indeed, today's citizen soldiers are serving with distinction and have sacrificed a great deal in our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, although they are being called to duty and mobilized for extended periods of time, their educational benefits do not reflect their increased service to the nation.  These patriots have earned and deserve high-quality education and training benefits to be used in a fair and equitable manner.

I would also like to welcome all of today's witnesses, and I very much appreciate your testimony as your views and insights are critically important as we go about examining this issue.

I am particularly interested in understanding and exploring the views and perspectives on the proposed Total Force GI Bill.  This proposal would, among other things, organize all GI Bill programs under Title 38 and provide a ten-year portability of Chapter 1607 benefits.

I believe these concepts would help reflect the reality of the total force policy.  However, I understand there may be concerns about how this proposal may affect retention, so I look forward to hearing from our witnesses.

Much progress has been made in education benefits for National Guard and Reserve members.  However, I think everyone would agree that we must remain vigilant to maintain against any decline in benefits.

Veterans, servicemembers, and military families of this Nation deserve our best efforts, and I plan on working with my colleagues to examine and develop policies aimed to improve readjustment services for our men and women in uniform.

Thank you again for being here today. 

I now recognize our Ranking Member, Mr. Boozman, for any opening remarks he may have.

[The statement of Chairwoman Herseth appears in the Appendix.]

OPENING STATEMENT OF HON. JOHN BOOZMAN

Mr. BOOZMAN.  Thank you, Chairman Herseth, and thank you for bringing this matter up in light of the recent scheduling of the joint hearing with Chairman Snyder's Subcommittee and with the events at Walter Reed that have since been discovered. 

Today we will hear from several witnesses on modernizing the GI Bill, especially as those benefits apply to members of the National Guard and Reserves. 

As you know, Chairman Snyder, I look forward to working with you in providing fair treatment for those who defend us.  That will not be an easy task.  Today's hearing is an important part of that process.

I suppose my basic approach is not to retain someone that you do not recruit for military service.  Hopefully once someone joins, aspects of military patriotism will convince members to stay regardless of benefits.

Those who choose to leave, we should be wise enough to thank them profusely for their service and make them aware that they are always welcome back.

Of course, none of us on this Committee can ignore the fiscal realities facing Congress.  We have to be conscious of how we spend taxpayers' money, but we must make sure we provide what is needed to continue to attract good people in military service.  I believe levels of benefits is what is needed to improve and retain members.

Madam Chairman, I am looking forward to hearing from today's witnesses, including Major General Wofford, the Adjutant General of the Arkansas National Guard, who we are very proud of.

And, again, General, like I told you earlier, I really appreciate your testimony, not just because you are from Arkansas, but you do a very, very good job, but I really look forward to your testimony. 

Again, thank you for testifying, and I look forward to continuing to work with the Chairman and the Subcommittee on these very important issues.

[The statement of Congressman Boozman appears in the Appendix.]

Ms. HERSETH.  Thank you, Mr. Boozman.

Our distinguished panel is well-qualified to discuss these issues today. 

Joining us on our first panel is the Honorable Craig Duehring, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs of the U.S. Department of Defense and Mr. Keith Wilson, Director of Education Service for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

After the first panel is finished giving their testimony, other members of the Subcommittee will be recognized for five minutes to make opening remarks and to ask questions.

As you were informed prior to the start of the hearing, we may have votes called at any time, so we will just go ahead and start.  I think we should be able to get through both the testimony of Mr. Duehring and Mr. Wilson.

Mr. Duehring, let us begin with you.

STATEMENTS OF HON. CRAIG W. DUEHRING, PRINCIPAL DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE FOR RESERVE AFFAIRS, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE; AND KEITH M. WILSON, DIRECTOR OF EDUCATION SERVICE, VETERANS BENEFITS ADMINISTRATION, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS

STATEMENT OF HON. CRAIG W. DUEHRING

Mr. DUEHRING.  Thank you, Madam Chairwoman.

Chairwoman Herseth, Ranking Member Boozman, and members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to discuss the educational assistance programs available to our Guard and Reserve members and the potential effects of changes to those programs.

This is an unprecedented time for the all-volunteer force.  We are at war.  But unlike World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam when many of the people who served in the military were drafted, today they make an informed decision to join the military.

We are proud of the men and women who volunteer to serve our great country.  They do so knowing there is a rich suite of benefits they will earn by virtue of their military service.

We also know that we face constant challenges to maintain an all-volunteer force.  We must be able to offer an incentive package that competes favorably with the private sector.

The Montgomery GI Bill for the Selected Reserve helps us attract high-quality recruits.  The recently enacted Reserve Education Assistance Program, REAP, which was created specifically to provide a richer benefit to Reserve component members who answered the call to duty, helps us retain our Guard and Reserve members who have proven themselves in combat.

Our most recent survey shows us that most Reservists do not begin a new career when they are released from active duty unlike their active-duty counterparts.  Eighty percent of Reservists were employed full time when activated.  Twenty-six percent were enrolled in school.

Certainly reintegration and readjustment are important to our citizen soldiers, particularly the 28 percent who reported that they did not return to the same employer and the eight percent who were not in the workforce when mobilized.

Guard and Reserve members can use the REAP benefit to train for a new career as they transition back to civilian life or advance in their current career.

We do not believe that the continued service requirement is onerous since the first couple of years following mobilization are also the years when the demands to perform Reserve service are at their lowest under the Services Force generation models.

At the hearing last fall on this same subject, the Committee heard testimony urging Congress to combine the two Reserve educational assistance programs into a single program under the Department of Veterans Affairs.

There is obvious merit in making educational assistance programs transparent to students and educational institutions and simplifying the administration of the programs for VA. 

But the Department is deeply concerned about changes to the Reserve programs that would affect the retention outcomes we hope to achieve with these programs.

To maintain the all-volunteer force, the Department needs a variety of incentives to meet its force management objectives.  That is why we find the retention aspect of the Reserve Educational Assistance Program such an important attribute.

Half of those who serve in the Selected Reserve today have completed their initial military service obligation.  Even among those who are still within their initial eight-year military service obligation, many have no obligation to serve in the Selected Reserve.  They can complete their military service in the Individual Ready Reserve.

This is why we are so intent on incentives being tied to service in the Selected Reserve.  We need incentives that encourage our Guardsmen and Reservists to stay with us, not to leave.

Madam Chairwoman, we have given a great deal of thought to educational programs and changes that would improve the programs while continuing to assist the Department in meeting its force management objectives.

In the short time since that hearing last fall, we were able to include two modest legislative proposals in the Department's 2008 legislative program. 

The first would allow Selected Reserve members to retain their REAP eligibility indefinitely while in the Individual Ready Reserve rather than losing eligibility after 90 days.

The second would allow Selected Reserve members who are separated due to the draw-down to retain MGIB Selected Reserve eligibility until the delimiting date just as we did during the force drawn-down in the 1990s.

We have also been working closely with VA to identify changes to the educational assistance programs that improve those programs while not undermining retention.  That work is still ongoing.

Madam Chairwoman, we also want to work with you and this Committee to see if we can find a way to balance retention with providing our combat-proven Guardsmen and Reservists a benefit that meets their needs for reintegration and readjustment.

I would again like to thank the Committee for all it has done for our men and women who serve our great country.

[The statement of Mr. Duehring appears in the Appendix.]

Ms. HERSETH.  Thank you, Mr. Duehring.

Mr. Wilson.

STATEMENT OF KEITH M. WILSON

Mr. WILSON.  Thank you.

Good afternoon, Chairwoman Herseth, Ranking Member Boozman, and members of the Subcommittee.  I appreciate the opportunity to appear before you today to discuss the two educational programs administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs for National Guard as well as Reserve members, mainly the Montgomery GI Bill Selected Reserve and the REAP, Reserve Educational Assistance Program.

The education claims processing workload for the MGIBSR increased steadily from 2001 until 2006.  In 2006, VA received more than 261,000 Selected Reserve benefit claims and 68,000 REAP benefit claims.

Through the end of February fiscal year 2007, we have received 98,000 Selected Reserve benefit claims as well as 52,000 REAP benefit claims.

Comparing fiscal year 2006 through February to the same period in fiscal year 2007, claims for Reservist benefits under both programs have increased 27 percent.

The Department of Defense has informed us that between 1986 and 2006, more than 1.5 million Selected Reserve members gained eligibility to MGIB Selected Reserve benefits.  Forty-two percent of them have applied for educational assistance. 

In fiscal year 2006, over $122 million in benefits were paid to over 66,000 Selected Reserve members participating in the Selected Reserve Program.  In fiscal year 2006, over $153 million in benefits was paid to almost 24,000 REAP participants.

Through the end of February fiscal 2007, over $71 million in benefits were paid to more than 43,000 Selected Reserve members participating in the 1606 program and over $93 million paid for 28,000 participants in the REAP program.

Timeliness has improved for supplemental claims processing.  Average days to complete Selected Reserve supplemental claims dropped from 20 days in fiscal 2006 to 17 days through February of fiscal 2007.  Similarly, average days to complete REAP claims has dropped from 19 days in 2006 to 17 days in 2007, again for supplemental claims.

Timeliness likewise has improved for original claims processing.  Average days to complete Selected Reserve original claims decreased from 35 days in 2006 to 29 days through February of this fiscal year.  Average days to complete REAP original claims dropped from 60 days in 2006 to 42 days through February of this fiscal year.

Expanded outreach has led to increased benefit usage.  We have distributed more than 300,000 copies of our new REAP brochure to activated Guard and Reserve units nationwide.  We have also prepared 46,000 REAP DVDs which are going to be distributed to Reserve units across the country.  The goal is to have informational disks distributed to all units by the end of this month, March of 2007.

Additionally, we will soon begin direct mailings of REAP informational material to activated Guard and Reserve members just as we now do for Chapter 30 participants.

We continue our efforts to migrate all claims processing from the Legacy claims processing system into our new VA corporate environment.  The Education Expert System known as TEES has a multi-year initiative that when fully deployed will electronically receive and process application and enrollment information.  TEES will enable us to improve processing for timeliness as well as quality of decision making.

Madam Chairman, this concludes my statement.  I would be pleased to answer any questions you or other members of the Subcommittee may have.

[The statement of Mr. Wilson appears in the Appendix.]

Ms. HERSETH.  Thank you both for you testimony.  I have a number of questions, but I am going to defer to Mr. Boozman if he wants to start or we can recognize Mr. McNerney and Mr. Moran for opening statements.

Okay.  Mr. McNerney, would you like to begin either with an opening statement or questions for the panel?

OPENING STATEMENT OF HON. JERRY McNERNEY

Mr. McNERNEY.  Thank you Madam Chair and Ranking Member Boozman.  I appreciate the opportunity to be here and to listen to the testimony.

We just went through sort of a trauma with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the hospital at Walter Reed.  And I know what you are going to answer to this question, but I just want to put it out there.

Are there any cockroaches under the table?  I mean, if you look at Walter Reed, we see from the top level, it looks good and there were not any problems.  But underneath it took someone to go in there and scour that system to find the problems.

Is there anything underneath that we are missing here that we are going to get a nasty surprise on later?  And I do not suspect that there is.  I do not have any reason to suspect that, but I am just a little on edge now because of that experience. 

And I recommend that you take the time to go down into the details of the system and make sure there are not any nasty surprises in your Administration.

Thank you.

Mr. WILSON.  I can address that very briefly.  We are fortunate in a couple respects actually.  In terms of the education benefits, administering those benefits, we have got a very effective relationship with the Department of Defense and most of the information that we need concerning eligibility, what we need to administer the program, is fed to us directly from DoD as data.

So in terms of having, in your word, cockroaches under the carpet, we are not aware of any, but certainly we are always vigilant, and we will continue to look and make sure that we are doing what we need to.

Mr. DUEHRING.  Can I mention something as well?  From our perspective, both my boss, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs, Thomas Hall, and I travel the country constantly, many times every month, usually trying to meet with soldiers, sailor, airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen, wherever we can find them, and the venue that we use is a town hall type format.

After visiting the unit, we say, okay, everybody here, let us talk.  What is going on, what are your concerns?  And we get a pretty accurate feeling for if there are problem areas.

A few years ago, TRICARE was a big issue for us.  We have been able to address that and we see the interest level going down. 

The education program is a popular program.  It is very much appreciated, but we have not seen anything right now that indicates that we have a recurring problem.  I feel very comfortable that we have a good system in place.

Mr. McNERNEY.  I yield.

Ms. HERSETH.  The gentleman yields back.

Mr. Moran, you are recognized.

OPENING STATEMENT OF HON. JERRY MORAN

Mr. MORAN.  Madam Chairman and Ranking Member, thank you very much for holding this hearing. 

Just from a personal perspective as a member of Congress, my highest priority this year is to see that we begin the process of reevaluating our Guard and Reserve components and the benefits that they receive, and clearly education is one of those, but healthcare, retirement.

As we have seen the increasing demands placed upon those who serve in our Reserve components and our National Guard units, it has become very clear to me that the distinction that we have often made between active military and Guard and Reserve is a lot less clear.

And, again, the benefits that we provide those who serve our country, we should reduce the areas in which we discriminate against Guard and Reserve.  So I am delighted to be here and listen to the testimony.

And I have no questions of these witnesses, but I do think that this hearing is important as we begin the process of trying to what I consider right some wrongs as we take care of those who serve just in a slightly different capacity than our active military.

So I thank you and Mr. Boozman for your leadership in this regard and know that you have legislation pending that I am a sponsor of.  And e look forward to working with you.  I thank you for that.

Ms. HERSETH.  We appreciate your partnership with us and the legislation that we have reintroduced in this Congress and other items that we are examining.

Mr. Boozman, I am sure you have some questions.

Mr. BOOZMAN.  The bill that Mr. Snyder has on the table that Mr. Moran just alluded to that we are sponsors of, it really has two components.  One component is moving the GI Bill into one unit as opposed to being split by DoD and Veterans.

Do you guys, either one, do you have any comments about that?  What are your feelings about joining it together as opposed to having its jurisdictions in different places?

Mr. WILSON.  The notion of bringing everything under Title 38, I think, is intriguing or attractive from one respect, but we do have some concerns that we would be bringing items into Title 38 that from a VA perspective, we do not feel we are best suited to address.

For example, "Kickers."  "Kickers" are something that really is a force management tool that DoD uses.  The current piece of legislation would bring a VA role into the "Kickers," and that is something that I do not think is or we are feeling is not necessarily appropriate for our role.

Mr. BOOZMAN.  Mr. Duehring?

Mr. DUEHRING.  Well, we would share that same concern.  The difference, of course, is that we treat the educational benefits for the Reserve programs as an incentive.  And in the other case for the veterans, it is an entitlement.  It changes the way it is funded.  It changes the decision-making process of when to use it, should we increase it, should it be changed, again trying to achieve a desired goal.

They look a lot alike, like I would say oranges and tangerines, but they are, in fact, a different fruit.  And I think we have a very good system that we are working well with.  It needs some tweaking from time to time, and we are happy to work with your staff to make those changes.

Mr. BOOZMAN.  Very good.  You mention that you do use it as an incentive.  Has there been any cost benefit studies done to determine the effects of the benefit as far as its intent in what it is trying to do?  I mean, do you have any evidence, any studies that you have come up with as to what effect it is having?

Mr. DUEHRING.  Recently as I was preparing for this testimony today, I asked about some of the surveys that we have done.  And when I scanned through them, and, of course, they parsed them out into different age groups and levels of experience, and I looked in there, you know, what is important to you for recruiting, retention, so on and so forth.

And I found that by and large education fell right in the middle of the pack.  If you got to younger people, it started moving up.  As you got older people, of course, not surprisingly it moved down.  Single people, it moved up.  Married people, it moved down.  But as I recall there were 17 possible choices and it came out as number nine, right in the middle, or one or two on either side in every single case.

As far as an analysis, a cost analysis, I am not aware of that, although there may be.  If you would like, I would be happy to take that back and provide you with an answer later on.

[The following was subsequently received from Mr. Duehring:]

The Department has not conducted a study specifically looking at the marginal effects of the Montgomery GI Bill - Selected Reserve (MGIB-SR) educational benefits on recruiting and retention.  We do know that in response to recent surveys asking Selected Reserve members about the factors that influenced their decision to affiliate with the Selected Reserve and their decision to remain in the Selected Reserve, education assistance benefits rank quite high. 

The primary concern of the Department is that moving authority for the MGIB-SR to title 38, and responsibility for the program to the Department of Veterans Affairs will change the emphasis of the program from a recruiting and retention incentive to a post-service (veterans’) benefit and the requirement for continued Selected Reserve membership will be eliminated.  We know, from the preliminary results of a recent analysis by the RAND Corporation as part of an ongoing study for the Department of Defense, that removal of the requirement to remain in the Selected Reserve for continued benefits under that program would have a negative effect on retention, and would require significant increases in recruiting or other retention incentives to make up for increased attrition.  The preliminary assessment of RAND estimates that permitting transportability of benefits – permitting the use of MGIB-SR benefits following separation from the Selected Reserve – projects that it would increase attrition by 10 percent among Selected Reserve members with no prior active duty service.  Aside from the training cost associated with replacing trained personnel who separate, RAND estimated that it would take a 10 percent increase in recruiting bonus expenditures to gain a one percent increase in accessions.  This fact demonstrates that the Department will need to spend a significant amount in other incentive programs to counteract the negative effects of allowing portability under the MGIB-SR program while continuing to provide an education benefit to those who would have otherwise remained in the Selected Reserve.

Mr. BOOZMAN.  Thank you.

Mr. Wilson, in your recent testimony before the Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, you described a certain tension between domestic veterans' programs and force structure issues that may result if the Centers of Education programs are transferred to Title 38, and, you know, we have alluded to that just now, from Title 10.

Can you expand even more so as to be specific?

Mr. WILSON.  I will do my best.  Friction perhaps is not the best term, but what I am attempting to describe is the mission essentially that VA has of caring for the veteran as they readjust into society and the mission that the Department of Defense has with keeping us all safe.

From a very broad perspective, those are the frictions that I was talking about, and bringing items from Title 10 into Title 38 that could create offsetting needs or offsetting goals under one title would be very difficult.  And we do not want to create a situation where, for instance, DoD and VA in the instance of Kickers that I gave would be at odds when we are both desiring to administer both programs or all of our programs the best we can.   

But in terms of the Kicker instance, we would be required to sit around the table and actually reach agreement on certain things.

Our mission of taking care of the veterans in a situation like that would be different than their mission, and those would be the type of things that would have to be worked out.  And friction was the term that I used for that.

Mr. BOOZMAN.  I know I have used my time.  Can I ask one more thing?

I guess as I was sitting here, one of the things that we have run into as we come on the base in so many different instances, do you all feel comfortable that our Guard and Reserve really understands the benefit that they have?

Mr. DUEHRING.  Yes.

Mr. BOOZMAN.  We run into that all the time.  Like I said, a lot of times, people do not hear about these things after they are recruited.  And I do not mean that in a bad way.  My dad was a recruiter in the Air Force.  But go ahead if you would.

Mr. DUEHRING.  Very much so.  Of course, the National Guard and each of the Reserve organizations have different ways of approaching their people.  But this is not the only issue that we have been asked questions like this on, whether it was a benefit, again going back to medical benefits, family programs, so on and so forth. 

We have scrubbed and rescrubbed our programs to make sure that individuals during the recruiting process, during the demobilization process are afforded every chance to learn about anything that might be of interest to them. 

We have documents.  We have web sites, of course, if they think about it later on.  They want to ask questions, we have the One Source, the military One Source, a myriad of ways that we can get the information to the individuals.  And I am very confident that they do know about it because of the responses that we get back, that they do consider it important. 

And it might be a good question perhaps to ask some of our experts on the second panel to find out what they have done as an example in their own units.  I think it would be very enlightening because they have very good programs.

Mr. BOOZMAN.  And I will submit this or whatever.  When can we expect the legislative proposal from joint VA, DoD Council?  The GI Bill Working Group, do we have any idea as to when that is going to happen?

Mr. WILSON.  They are very close to completing their work.  The only issue that remains is developing an understanding of the impact on recruitment and retention of the alternatives that the working group originally proposed.

I know just from a broad perspective that that issue is being worked largely within DoD, and I will have to provide more detailed information back to you.

Mr. BOOZMAN.  Thank you.

Ms. HERSETH.  Thank you, Mr. Boozman.

It is true, Mr. Wilson, that in the testimony you gave to the Armed Services Committee or I think even the written statement you provided, the reason, as you just stated, that we do not have the report from the working group is because of the analysis on the impact on recruitment and retention.

So given that we were supposed to have those findings in September of last year, we were then told it was going to be completed in October of last year.  I understand we are close.  How close are we? 

I think it is important that we at least have a date given to us today to shoot for and have an understanding as to what it is.  Maybe you can answer or, Mr. Duehring you can, to what precisely DoD is analyzing to provide us this information.

Mr. WILSON.  Unfortunately, neither of us are aware of the specific details concerning where the working group is at with that part of the analysis.  I would be reluctant to provide a specific date today. 

What I can commit to is providing a date within the next ten days, once I have the opportunity to go back with the working group and find out a little bit more information and give you a date from that point, if that is acceptable.

Ms. HERSETH.  If you could get it to us by next Friday.  As you know, there is a two-week district work period.  It would be helpful for us to know prior to going back to our districts when we can expect that.  Hopefully sometime when we return in April.

Thank you.

[The following was subsequently received from Mr. Wilson:]

Education Service: Timetable for the DOD/VA working group report on the Total Force GI Bill?

The Joint Executive Council was presented with findings from the Total Force Working Group in January and did not believe it was ready to be released.  They desired that the impact on recruitment and retention be addressed.  We are unable to provide a date by which the final report will be provided from the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to the Veterans Advisory Committee on Education.

Ms. HERSETH.  We have been joined by Dr. Snyder, who is a member of the full Veterans' Affairs Committee as well as the Armed Services Committee, and conducted the Subcommittee hearing not too long ago in probing some of what we are probing here today. 

I think one of the issues that was the subject of some questioning with the Armed Services Subcommittee that I would like to probe a little bit because it goes to the issue that you mentioned, Mr. Wilson—the expanded outreach that has been done to inform servicemembers in the Guard and Reserve of their benefits, and addresses something, Mr. Duehring, that you said when you have town halls and try to gauge where some concern is.

I have been picking up more concern in meetings that I have had over the last four to six weeks both with folks at the State government level that work with State Approving Agencies and that work with other individuals who are just more comfortable going to them to help find information and work with the folks down in St. Louis as well as two National Guardsmen that I had coffee with just last weekend about how their education benefits were working for them.

There seems to be some confusion, a significant degree of confusion in some of what I have been hearing that I am afraid may lead to a reservoir of resentment if we do not address it quickly here.  The issue of how the amount of time that a National Guardsman or Reservist accumulates during active-duty deployment and how that may be transferred to affect their Chapter 1606 benefits after they have left the National Guard or Reserve.

There seems to be some confusion, and everyone, I think, in the room is probably familiar with the Military.com article from the end of January.

Mr. Duehring, you had mentioned at the beginning kind of the benefit of having this transparency of education benefits, and I would argue consistency of interpretation for eligibility of those benefits.

If you both could address the following questions.  May a Reservist veteran who separates after successfully completing his contract defer the start date for using the 1606 extension benefit and, if so, for how long?

Mr. WILSON.  The issue of the 1606 delimiting date has been an issue that does cause confusion, and I will make a brief comment in a general term.  I agree with the statement that the Guard, Reservist, and active-duty individuals do know about the benefits from a broad perspective.

The details, I think, are more difficult to get across to individuals, and I think one example of that is this portion.

The amount of time that an individual can use their 1606 benefits following separation from the Guard or Reserve, if they are activated, their delimiting date for use of those benefits is extended for a time equal to the time that they were on active duty plus four months.  And that extension goes from the time that their normal delimiting date would occur.

So the extension of the delimiting date occurs at separation, so there is no additional time beyond that delimiting date for which the clock starts at separation.  In other words, for lack of a better term, there is not portability as we normally think of it in active-duty Chapter 30 Program where you have a ten-year period. 

It is not as if an individual has a 16-month window at any time following release from the Guard and Reserve that they can use their 1606 benefits.  It is simply an extension of the delimiting date. 

And since their delimiting date would occur when they separate from the Guard or Reserve, that would be the extension that they would get is 16 months from that point forward.

Ms. HERSETH.  Just to clarify, I think I see what you are saying and it may have added.  The delimiting date is from the time where they are eligible for the benefit, when they have signed up for the benefit?

Mr. WILSON.  No.

Ms. HERSETH.  Not signed up, but the delimiting date is—let me use just a hypothetical of my neighbor's son.  Okay?  So he was activated.  He went into the Guard in 2000 or 2001.  Let us say 2001.  They were then activated in December of 2003 and were demobilized in March of 2005.  He then chose to separate.  He was unaware that he could use any 1606 benefits that had been accumulated after he separated.

Mr. WILSON.  Following separation.  And he would have had the period equal to the amount of activation plus four months from the point that he separated which is his delimiting date.

Ms. HERSETH.  Which would bring us to, let us say, when they got back in March of 2005, he then separated in June of 2005, so he would have 16 months—no—he would have 20 months.

Mr. WILSON.  He would have the length of time equal to his activation plus four months.

Ms. HERSETH.  Plus four, so that brings us to, if someone can help me out, what date would that bring us to?  June 2006.

Mr. WILSON.  Approaching current date, I believe.

Ms. HERSETH.  Nineteen months.  By the time we give him this information, it is past the date.  So now he has no 1606 benefits.  Once we have clarified the confusion, it is too late for him.

Do we have any idea how many individuals are caught in that gap?

Mr. WILSON.  We do not.  What I do know is we have paid about 3,500 individuals under this clause.  I do not know how many people would have been eligible because it would be dependent on the unique circumstances of the individual.  In order to take advantage of it, they would have to go to school, of course, immediately following separation.

Ms. HERSETH.  If you separate in June, you would have to take courses in the summer.  You could not wait until the fall semester?

Mr. WILSON.  If you did, you would be burning your delimiting date and not getting any benefit out of it because the clock starts at the delimiting date.

Ms. HERSETH.  At the date of separation?

Mr. WILSON.  The separation.

Ms. HERSETH.  Okay.  Mr. Duehring, did you want to add anything?

Mr. DUEHRING.  Actually, we agree on this particular provision.

Ms. HERSETH.  There is no disagreement anymore on how that is interpreted by DoD and the VA in terms of extending the delimiting date?

Mr. WILSON.  That is correct.  There is no disagreement.

Ms. HERSETH.  But you are not aware of how many people either may have been eligible and were not aware because of maybe some initial confusion on how we interpret that and now their benefits have been foregone?  No study or analysis has been done?

Mr. WILSON.  I am not aware of any analysis, no.  I will go back and look to see if we could have data that could hypothetically determine something.  I do not know if we can or not.

What we are doing is preparing material that is going to go through DoD's chain of command to the units to ensure that clarity does exist at the unit level and DoD has agreed with this approach.  We will providing that information to DoD any day.  We do not have that rolled out yet, but we will shortly.

That does not address your concern, though, of the individuals that have separated.  And we will have to do some analysis to see if we can come up with something.

[The following was subsequently received from Mr. Wilson:]

Education Service: Data on those potentially eligible for 1606 delimiting date extension since September 11, 2001.

Our best estimation, based on data from the Defense Data Manpower Data center, is that there are approximately 100K that meet the following criteria:

  • Activated or deployed from a reserve component after September 11, 2001.
  • Were at one point coded eligible to receive chapter 1606 benefit from their reserve component.
  • Are not currently in the Selected Reserves (as of January 31, 2007 – the most recent data we have).

We are unable to determine the impact of intangibles.  For example, usage rate for the MGIB-SR is 42%, not 100%.  Additionally, the MGIB-SR was not intended, and is ill-suited to serve as a readjustment program.  The amount of the benefit ($309 for full-time attendance) prohibits most individuals from pursuing full-time training following separation from the Guard/Reserve.  Additionally, the REAP program pays a significantly higher benefit ($645 for full time training following one year of continuous activation) than the MGIB-SR program.  As a result, the incentive to remain in the Guard/Reserve created by the REAP program is greater than the incentive to leave the Guard/Reserve created by the MGIB-SR delimiting date extension.

Education Service: Please provide a clearer understanding of cumulative and consecutive service when it comes to 1606 delimiting date extensions:

Each active service period gets counted and the additional 4 months are attached to each period. Active service does not have to be consecutive. Example: A reservist is called to active duty for one year.  He returns home for a year.  He is called to active duty again for one year.  He would be entitled to an extension of 1 year plus 4 months for each period of activation for a total extension of 32 months.

Ms. HERSETH.  Then in terms of the consistency of interpretation between the VA and the DoD, is it based on consecutive or cumulative time of deployment?

Mr. DUEHRING.  The proposal is cumulative.  The existing rule now is consecutive time.

Ms. HERSETH.  When you say the proposal, whose proposal?

Mr. DUEHRING.  I believe it is in H.R. 1102.

Ms. HERSETH.  Oh, you mean in one of our legislative proposals?

Mr. DUEHRING.  Yes.  There is a legislative—correct me if I am wrong on that—but it is now interpreted it is consecutive.

Ms. HERSETH.  Has there been any discussion within the DoD given the Pentagon's recent change of policy as it relates to the call-up time for National Guard and Reservists limited to 12 months to make it cumulative for those that may have been deployed earlier?

Mr. DUEHRING.  This area, certainly this is not the first time we have heard of it.  This along with the other issues that—I am sorry—who mentioned it in their opening remarks about, you know, the changing benefits for retirements and so on and so forth are a part of a broad spectrum of changes that we are looking at that have come in from different committees in Congress, come in from the field, come in from the Reserve associations. 

And I think that is the wise way to do it.  Quite frankly, it is an issue we need to address.  We are well aware of it.  But we have to look at the impact that it might have and not only on the individuals but on other programs that it would affect and, of course, the cost and so on and so forth.  But definitely we are aware of that.

Ms. HERSETH.  Okay.  I appreciate that.  I appreciate that you understand the Subcommittee's—I do not want to speak for the other members, but the issue here of individuals that may have fallen through this gap.  I think each State has done a good job, but I think some States have done better than others of making their members aware and educated about the benefits on the education side. 

My concern is that of those National Guard and Reserve units that were among the first to be called up and then the first to come home and get demobilized that that process was not perfected in any way.  Those are the individuals that were not aware that they had a residual education benefit that they could actually use post separation.

My time, I have gone way over.  Let me recognize Mr. McNerney, if you have any further questions for this panel?

Mr. McNERNEY.  I do not have anything at this time.  Thank you.

Ms. HERSETH.  Mr. Moran?

Mr. MORAN.  Madam Chairman, thank you.

Just let me ask you as representatives within the Administration from the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs, does the Administration have any recommendations in addressing the issue that I raised just in my brief comments about the disparity between—do you recognize there is a disparity between the benefits received, educational, retirement, healthcare between active military and Reserve and Guard?  Do you agree that the issue needs to be addressed and, if so, do you have specific proposals within the Administration to do so?

Mr. WILSON.  In terms of recognizing the disparity, yes.  Many of the programs that we administer by design do have disparity between what an active-duty member can draw and what a Guard and Reservist can draw.  That has been built into the programs themselves.

Concerning initiatives, I am not aware of any initiatives to address that within the Administration right now, no.

Mr. MORAN.  Mr. Duehring?

Mr. DUEHRING.  Well, I was just going to say I will probably use the word differences.  There are differences between the Reserve forces and the active duty.  We all know that.

And it is constantly being reevaluated because when we change from a strategic to an operational Reserve or as we change, shall I say, we constantly reevaluate compensation and a host of other programs. 

And, again, as I alluded to before, they all overlap.  It is like pulling a string in a rug.  You pull one string and the whole rug shakes a little bit.  And we have to be very, very careful, proceed cautiously.

I think in the five and a half years that I have been with the Administration, I have seen some remarkable progress, remarkable cooperation between the Administration, the Congress, working with your professional staffers to iron out the little bumps in the road, the technical glitches, that we as a group have done a good job to recognize our people, to compensate them, to take care of the wounded warrior when they come back.

I personally believe that in my heart.  And I see from day to day and I listen to what people are talking about and they are going in the right direction, maybe not as fast as some people would like us to go, but we are moving towards the goal of keeping that all-volunteer force sharp, ready, and the best people.  And, gosh, I guess the proof is in what you see out there.  There are wonderful, wonderful folks doing a magnificent job.

Mr. MORAN.  Mr. Wilson, I was in artful in phrasing my question because I assume you recognize that there is a distinction or a difference.  It is there.

My question was, is there a belief that those distinctions, differences are justified or, as Mr. Duehring just indicated, we are constantly evaluating that, I assume from a fairness, a justice side, but from recruitment, retention? 

It is just my theory or my thought is that our Guard and Reserve are asked to perform services in a much more continuing fashion, greater number of deployments, longer time of being away from family and work.  And I was interested in knowing whether the difference in which we treat active military and our Guard and Reserve components is one that is—the differences that are still there are still justified.

Mr. WILSON.  In terms of being justified or not justified, what I would say is that, as has been mentioned, we are constantly reevaluating these programs.  The working group having understanding that there is a lot of frustration, that the working group has not provided their report.  I think the working group is a demonstration of the understanding both from DoD and VA that these issues do have to be looked at.

And there is at least a situation where reasonable minds, whether they agree or disagree that the programs are currently the best that they can be, realize that there is an understanding that we have to address them and make sure that there is being done everything that we can do to improve the programs.

The 1607 program, I think, is a good example.  We are pleased to be able to administer the 1607 program.  That is an outstanding program.  We have been paying that benefit for about a year now.  And, fortunately, that benefit did go retroactive to September 1st. 

So it did allow anybody that has been called up from Guard and Reserve during this period to take advantage of that benefit.  And those are the type approaches we want to continue to take.

Mr. MORAN.  I thank you for your answers and for your testimony.

And thank you, Madam Chairman.

Ms. HERSETH.  Thank you, Mr. Moran.

And my concern related to what Mr. Moran's line of questioning pursued is that from a 2004 report and then reaffirmed in a hearing about a year ago, it seems that the Department of Defense—I know you testified that you are constantly reevaluating this.  But it seems to me that so long as DoD is meeting its recruitment and retention goals, it is satisfied with the current benefit.

And while the current benefit has gone from 47 percent of the active-duty rate now down to about 29 percent of the active-duty rate, that even if it goes down to ten or fifteen percent or lower of the active-duty rate, as long as we are meeting recruitment and retention goals, people are going to be fine with the current benefit.  That raises the equity issues that a number of the members here today have identified.

Mr. Duehring, during last fall's joint Committee hearing with the Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee, Michael Domingus, Deputy Under Secretary of Defense, Personnel Readiness, said that the Reserve components, except for the Navy Reserve, were close to meeting their recruitment goals.

Do you know if that is still the case?

Mr. DUEHRING.  Yes, ma'am.  That actually is.  And as I recall, the most recent data that I saw showed the Navy still is just a little bit down what I have through February of 2007 for this year. 

The Navy has reached 90 percent of its goal.  The Army Reserve was also below a hundred percent at 94 percent.  The others were in excess of a hundred percent.  And that is the most recent data I was able to get a hold of.

Ms. HERSETH.  Okay.  One last question for you, Mr. Wilson, based on my coffee conversation with the young men.  Once that system was automated for Chapter 1607 benefits and when we had some of those questions over the last year to two years, they say it is working well except sometimes the checks are delayed.  There is a delay in actually getting payment.

Do you know what the cause of that might be now that we have automated that system?

Mr. WILSON.  The delay would be the lingering impact of the initial roll-out of the program.  We have been paying the program for about a year.  We are receiving a significantly higher number of claims than we had anticipated.  We believe, again going back to the nature of the way it was implemented, we are paying benefits retroactive to September 11th of 2001. 

So we are receiving a lot of claims in.  And from an administrator point of view, those claims are difficult to administer.  It does take a long time to work out the mechanics of those. 

We have stood up what we call an automated payment system in our benefits delivery network system.  But it does not automate the entire process.  It does require manual intervention on most of these cases because of the amount of retroactive time that we are paying benefits.

Ms. HERSETH.  Okay.  Does it require manual intervention because of the way we have set this up in terms of a percentage of the active-duty rate based on less than a year activated, but less than two years activated?  Is that part of the issue too?

Mr. WILSON.  My understanding is no.  The issue more is most of the claims that we are processing, certainly the original claims right now for REAP are cases where an individual drew 1606 benefits previously and we are required to go back and manually basically calculate the difference so we do not overpay the individual.

Ms. HERSETH.  I appreciate the explanation.  I hope that we continue to make progress, however, in decreasing the amount of manual intervention necessary so that once the claim is processed that the benefit can be delivered on time every time and not put these service men and women that are enrolled in school in a tough spot, even if it is only two or three weeks.

Mr. WILSON.  Absolutely.

Ms. HERSETH.  Okay.  Dr. Snyder, did you have any questions for the panel?

Mr. SNYDER.  No.  Thank you.

Ms. HERSETH.  Dr. Boozman?

Mr. BOOZMAN.  No.

Ms. HERSETH.  Thank you both very much.  We appreciate your testimony and responses to our questions. 

Just to emphasize, Mr. Wilson, if you can get us any kind of timetable by next Friday, we would appreciate that.

Mr. WILSON.  Will do.

Ms. HERSETH.  Thanks.

I would now like to call the panelists for next testimony.  We have Major General Scherling, Major General Wofford, a