Getting Vets Their Benefits Back

Melinda Tuhus

U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs James Nicholson (L) testifies as Under Secretary for Health Jon Perlin (R) listens during a hearing before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Quality of Life and Veterans Affairs on Capitol Hill June 28, 2005, in Washington, DC.

Rick Scavetta lives with his wife and young daughter in a small town near New Haven, Conn. He joined the Army at 18, in part to earn money for college, and served in the regular Army and then the Reserve for a total of 15 years, reaching the rank of Sergeant 1st Class. In 2005, his Reserve unit was called up, and he served a year in Afghanistan. 

Scavetta says he made a firm decision to leave the military last February, and planned to use his GI Bill benefits to pursue a master’s degree in political science and to study Arabic at Southern Connecticut State University. But he was told in his exit briefing that if he deactivated – in military terms, left drill status” – he would not be eligible. 

Imagine if someone told you, We promise you these benefits if you serve your country,’ and you held up your end of the bargain for six years in the Reserve, a year or two deployed overseas,” he says. It’s frustrating, especially since school can be a very grounding thing for a veteran returning from war.”

Scavetta is just one of the many vets Jack Mordente works with as director of Veterans Affairs (VA) at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. Mordente says he learned last May that the Department of Defense was telling war-activated Guard and Reservists that if they left paid drill status they would lose their GI Bill education benefits. And in fact it’s not true,” he says. 

VA representative Keith Wilson backs up Mordente’s interpretation. Providing a bit of history, he says that in 1985 Congress created GI Bill education benefits for members of the Guard and Reserve for the first time. Then, he adds, During Gulf War I, some individuals in the Guard and Reserve were called up for active duty, which interfered with their ability to pursue their education. So Congress passed a law that allowed the delimiting date (i.e., eligibility deadline) to be extended for a period equal to the time they’re activated plus four months.” 

Mordente says if a member of the Guard or Reserve knows he or she is eligible and files for the benefit, the Veterans Administration will pay it. 

But the Department of Defense (DoD) interprets the law differently. Lt. Col. Steve Beller of the Army National Guard writes the Guard policies to implement Army regulations. He says that the Department of Defense, unlike the VA, interprets the law to restrict eligibility for benefits to those who remain on drill status. 

The general counsels of the VA and the DoD issued opposite opinions,” he says. The two departments are trying to resolve their differences, but until they do, Beller says, We will continue briefing as our attorneys have stated, that those benefits terminate upon leaving Selective Reserve.” He adds, The funding we get for bonuses, retention and the GI Bill is all in one pot. If we take that money and give it to a vet, that means there’s a soldier sitting in the desert to whom I can’t give a re-enlistment bonus.”

Scavetta knows he’s eligible, but has still run into roadblocks. I applied for my GI Bill benefits in August,” he says, and I haven’t heard anything from the VA. I tried to call them, and got redirected to a call center, and the voice says nobody’s available to talk to me and hangs up.” He’s putting his school expenses – about $1,400 per semester – on his credit card. To not have a quicker delivery system for the benefits we’re entitled to is, quite frankly, bullshit.” 

Besides serving veteran-students at SCSU, Mordente is also president of the National Association of Veterans Program Administrators, and through his organization he is trying to get the word out nationally. He says student vets make up more than 20 percent of the nearly 400,000 members of the Guard and Reserve from all branches of the military who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan since 2001. So far, the VA’s Wilson says the department has paid about 3,400 people under this provision, with a maximum payment of $300 a month. No one knows how many retired GIs haven’t applied because they’ve been told they’re ineligible. 

These are war-activated Guard and Reservists who sacrificed,” Mordente says. And now they’re being told they’re not eligible for a benefit they are eligible for. It’s appalling.”

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Melinda Tuhus is an independent journalist with 25 years of experience in print and radio, including In These Times, The New York Times, Free Speech Radio News and public radio stations.
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