National Guard August 2012 : Page 30

Lessons Taught By Andrew Waldman Sorting through the labyrinth of available educational benefits can be confusing, which makes it wise to consult with someone who’s already been through it AVIGATING A COMBAT zone in the rugged terrain of Afghanistan is a challenge for any soldier. But the land-scape of veterans’ education benefits can sometimes be just as daunting. “It’s great that you have all these programs, but it’s hard to navigate these the first time,” says Staff Sgt. Matt Jones, a Pennsylvania Army National Guardsman who is going to school using the post-9/11 GI Bill. Consider, for example, a sergeant N from Peoria, Ill., who spent a few years on active duty before trans-ferring to the National Guard and deploying to Iraq for 12 months. Not only does this soldier qualify for the three-year-old Post-9/11 GI Bill, but also for benefits under the Montgomery GI Bill-Selected Reserve, the Reserve Educational Assistance Program (REAP) and the Montgomery GI Bill-Active Duty under Title 10 of the U.S. Code. The sergeant can use up to 48 months of two of these benefits, and a maximum of 36 of one. Some benefits have a vastly higher monetary value than others, but that doesn’t matter to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which administers the programs. Confused yet? The GI Bill programs are some of VA’s most widely used benefits by both former and current service members. Snaking through the catacombs of the VA bureaucracy and arriving at the first benefit check can be tough, but a few Guard experts on the pro-grams say that an eligible Guardsman should be able to survive the process unscathed. The first step to starting any VA benefit is to determine eligibility, a task which falls to the service member or veteran. For GI Bill benefits, this can be done on the VA’s website at www.gibill. va.gov/apply-for-benefits/application. The process is pretty straightfor-30 | Na tional Guard

Lessons Taught

Andrew Waldman

Sorting through the labyrinth of available educational benefits can be confusing, which makes it wise to consult with someone who’s already been through it<br /> <br /> NAVIGATING A COMBAT zone in the rugged terrain of Afghanistan is a challenge for any soldier. But the landscape of veterans’ education benefits can sometimes be just as daunting.<br /> <br /> “It’s great that you have all these programs, but it’s hard to navigate these the first time,” says Staff Sgt. Matt Jones, a Pennsylvania Army National Guardsman who is going to school using the post-9/11 GI Bill.<br /> <br /> Consider, for example, a sergeant from Peoria, Ill., who spent a few years on active duty before transferring to the National Guard and deploying to Iraq for 12 months.<br /> <br /> Not only does this soldier qualify for the three-year-old Post-9/11 GI Bill, but also for benefits under the Montgomery GI Bill-Selected Reserve, the Reserve Educational Assistance Program (REAP) and the Montgomery GI Bill-Active Duty under Title 10 of the U.S. Code.<br /> <br /> The sergeant can use up to 48 months of two of these benefits, and a maximum of 36 of one. Some benefits have a vastly higher monetary value than others, but that doesn’t matter to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which administers the programs.<br /> <br /> Confused yet?<br /> <br /> The GI Bill programs are some of VA’s most widely used benefits by both former and current service members.<br /> <br /> Snaking through the catacombs of the VA bureaucracy and arriving at the first benefit check can be tough, but a few Guard experts on the programs say that an eligible Guardsman should be able to survive the process unscathed.<br /> <br /> The first step to starting any VA benefit is to determine eligibility, a task which falls to the service member or veteran.<br /> <br /> For GI Bill benefits, this can be done on the VA’s website at www.gibill. va.gov/apply-for-benefits/application. <br /> <br /> The process is pretty straight for Ward for a soldier or airman who will use the benefits, says Staff Sgt. Bridget Crosby, the education services specialist for the Washington Army Guard. After logging on to the site and filing the proper paperwork, she says, an answer regarding eligibility is normally provided in short order.<br /> <br /> A Guardsman who has served at least 90 days on qualifying active duty is eligible for at least fractional benefits from the Post-9/11 GI Bill. However, there are several forms of Title 32 active duty that can be eligible, while others are not.<br /> <br /> Uncertainty about this can cause delays or confusion. And getting those questions answered by VA representatives can be difficult, says Jones, who is currently using the GI Bill to attend Harrisburg Area Community College and Penn State University.<br /> <br /> “The hardest part is getting in touch with somebody,” he says. “Not everything is spelled out.” <br /> <br /> Every state has education officers and education support specialists like Crosby who can help steer Guardsmen in the right direction.<br /> <br /> Crosby says soldiers who can’t get their questions about eligibility answered should call the National Guard Professional Education Center in Little Rock, Ark., at 1-866-628-5999.<br /> <br /> PEC has access to records that can help determine eligibility, and the staff works only on Guard issues, unlike VA representatives who work with all branches of service.<br /> <br /> “[PEC] can see all of their Title 10 time and Title 32 time if the data is accurate,” Crosby says.<br /> <br /> Eligibility is by far the most contentious issue of the Post-9/11 GI Bill. NGAUS has worked hard to change federal law so that more state duty qualifies, but some Title 32 duty still doesn’t confer educational benefits.<br /> <br /> Spc. Abimael Morales, the GI Bill manager for the Puerto Rico Guard, says he often encounters Guardsmen who have been working on active duty as members of the counterdrug program, but they do not qualify for GI Bill benefits.<br /> <br /> When he tells them, the questions start.<br /> <br /> “They say, ‘Why? I’ve been on active duty for so many years?’” he says. “I have to explain the rules to them, and they do get frustrated about it.” <br /> <br /> Once eligibility is confirmed, a Guardsman must determine how to use the benefits. Because a person may use up to 48 months of two GI Bill benefits, but only 36 total of a single benefit, the confusion is almost guaranteed.<br /> <br /> If the sergeant from Peoria has already drawn benefits under the REAP for 18 months, he may only use 18 more months of REAP, but 30 months of a combination of REAP and another benefit, like the Post-9/11 GI Bill, regardless of the value of any benefit.<br /> <br /> So, Crosby says, making the determination of what mix of benefits will yield the best result financially is an essential decision.<br /> <br /> “I tell them to look at it like a financial plan with a future goal in mind,” she says.<br /> <br /> That financial plan must take into account all sources of money that a Guardsman might have available.<br /> <br /> For some Guardsmen, it is best to take advantage of their state’s education benefits or the Federal Tuition Assistance Program before using VA benefits. Some states will pick up the entire bill for tuition to a state school, while the federal program will provide $4,500 annually in assistance.<br /> <br /> Using other programs first can help soldiers who may want to use their benefits for more advanced degrees or those who want to pass on their Post- 9/11 GI Bill benefits to a dependent or spouse.<br /> <br /> “That really varies from soldier to soldier,” says Crosby.<br /> <br /> Jones, the Pennsylvania Guard soldier, suggests finding a fellow Guardsman who has experience with the VA system.<br /> <br /> “It’s important to find someone else who has already done it and learn the process before you do it,” he says.<br /> <br /> The other major benefit of the GI Bill is its transferability to dependents or a spouse. Morales answers a lot of questions about this.<br /> <br /> Crosby says she always recommends that anyone wanting to transfer the benefit to dependents designate every eligible family member as a recipient. When the Guardsman retires, it’s easy to distribute the accrued benefits to the family.<br /> <br /> If a Guardsman gets out of the military and has not designated beneficiaries, it is next to impossible to change. The general rule, Crosby says, is that a Guardsman can determine who the beneficiaries are while in uniform, but can only change an individual beneficiary’s benefit after leaving the service.<br /> <br /> “Do it as soon as possible, so you don’t incur additional service obligations,” Crosby says of transferring Post- 9/11 GI Bill benefits.<br /> <br /> Morales says the transferability is a very popular option in Puerto Rico, but many Guardsmen need extra training on how to use it.<br /> <br /> “We go to units. We make the information available for them so they can do the right thing for the family members,” he says.<br /> <br /> Jones praised the Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits for their flexibility. But he cautions Guardsmen who want to use the program to exercise patience while going through the application process.<br /> <br /> “Don’t give up. If you get frustrated with the process, take a day off from the paperwork,” he says. “If you give up, the only person who loses out is you.”

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