Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, right, is greeted by Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, upon his arrival on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, on Aug. 22. (Sgt. Aaron Hostutle/Marine Corps)
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel pledged Thursday to protect the ability to transfer GI Bill benefits to family members from budget cuts.
A former U.S. senator, Hagel was one of a group of combat veterans who in 2007 and 2008 pushed the Post-9/11 GI Bill through Congress. This program allows sharing GI Bill benefits with a spouse and children after a minimum of six years of service in return for an additional four-year service obligation.
In a town hall meeting at Marine Corps Base Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, Hagel was asked about the future of the transfer rights and about whether the requirement for a new four-year commitment could be relaxed.
“I know something about that bill, since I helped write it,” Hagel said. “We will continue to do everything we can to protect every element and fund every part of that bill,” he said.
Hagel noted that he and his brother, Tom, both used the Vietnam-era GI Bill after they returned from Vietnam.
He did not respond to the question about having to sign a new four-year obligation in to be eligible to transfer benefits because the Marine sergeant who asked the question appeared to believe the Veterans Affairs Department was giving him bad information on the topic. Hagel promised to speak with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki about the issue.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill, now in effect for four years, has helped 1 million people attend college or vocational schools but has cost $30 billion, a large expense in times of cutting budgets. There is a fear among veterans’ organizations that the program, created specifically to fully cover the cost of a four-year degree for returning combat veterans, could become a target for budget cuts
Transfer rights to family members was not part of the original Post-9/11 GI Bill introduced by then-Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., also a Vietnam veteran. The ability to share benefits was added because the Defense Department objected to having a generous veterans’ education benefit, fearing it could lead thousands of people to leave the military at a point when fierce fighting was under way in Iraq and Afghanistan and many service members were facing multiple combat deployments. The ability to share benefits with a spouse or child in return for a four-year commitment was proposed by the Pentagon, and accepted by the bill sponsors, as a way to encourage people to stay in the military.
It has been a very popular program. Defense Department officials report that about 352,000 service members have been approved to transfer Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to their dependents. Because service members can divide their benefits among multiple dependents, DoD officials said 752,000 dependents have been approved to receive the payments.
It is unclear how many dependents have actually used transferred benefits because the Department of Veterans Affairs, which oversees the GI Bill, only started collecting information on dependent use in 2011.
Hagel’s remarks in Hawaii didn’t touch on why transfer rights became part of the program, making it sound like this was part of the proposal all along. “There were some clear intentions that we had that we wanted that we wrote it, and one was the transferability of benefits,” he said.
Hagel told Marines that every military program is being evaluated in the light of budget constraints but the GI Bill and it transfer rights are a program “we want to protect in every way we can, because we think it the right thing to do for our people.
“We've committed to do that for our people. We think it enhances our people, it enhances our country. It is a smart investment in our country. It is a smart investment in you, in your families,” he said.