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Some Vets Groups Back Curbing Kids' GI Bill BAH to Fund Other Programs

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Veterans groups that often present a united front on issues of benefits -- especially if they're to be cut or reduced -- are standing less than shoulder-to-shoulder on a controversial bill to halve the housing allowance of children attending college on a parent's GI Bill.

While Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, or IAVA, and others made it clear they would go to the wall to keep the Post-9/11 GI Bill intact -- even if it means putting at risk other pro-veteran provisions in the legislation -- others indicated they're willing to accept a dependent housing allowance reduction if it means gaining funding for new and expanded veterans programs.

"It's a pretty well-crafted bill," said Mike Saunders, legislative director for The Retired Enlisted Association. "We support a lot of things in there, so we're loath to beat the drum against the bill in general."

That's also the view of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which noted in an earlier statement that the bill, known in legislative parlance as H.R. 3016 -- includes provisions for improving postnatal care for female veterans, expanded K-9 therapy for veterans suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder, reauthorizing the VA work-study program and removing the cap on VA home loan guarantees.

"While the VFW would never actively support any standalone provision that reduces benefits for veterans or service members, we felt that H.R. 3016, taken in its entirety, contained enough good provisions to support its passage," VFW national spokesman Joe Davis said.

That's also pretty much the position taken by The American Legion and some others.

Lou Celli, legislative director for the Legion, said he understands the position of the IAVA and other groups but that his organization is more focused on the details of the legislation. One provision will, for the first time, he said, count the time a reservist spends recovering in hospital from wounds and injuries toward GI Bill eligibility.

H.R. 3016, the Veterans Employment, Education and Healthcare Act, was passed by the House with little controversy early this year. The Senate has yet to consider a version of the legislation, though insiders say one is currently in the works.

Poll: Change GI Bill Transferred Benefits?

Derek Fronabarger, director of policy for Student Veterans of America, said the group is still drafting its position paper on the bill, but said it agrees with that published recently by the National Military Families Association.

The NMFA states on its website that it is "not happy about the legislation" but because of other pro-veterans provisions in it the group has "decided not to oppose the bill."

These new and expanded programs would be funded from the money saved by reducing the housing allowance of students attending college on a parent's GI Bill.

The legislation targets the benefit's Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) rates, which are based on an E-5 with dependents for the ZIP code of the school being attended.

The monthly allowance is adjusted every January to keep pace with inflation and varies by region. For example, an E-5 with family in San Francisco gets $4,116 a month, a similar family in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Pennsylvania, receives $1,374 a month -- the median value -- and a similar family at Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi receives $819 a month.

But even if veterans groups are willing to accept the housing allowance reduction as a trade-off for other programs, none wants to break ranks with the other groups by publicly endorsing the proposal. So trying to tease out the different policy positions within the community on this proposal and others is often challenging.

"We're between a rock and a hard place," said Saunders of TREA. "We're in full-throated opposition [to the cut] but we're following it closely and supporting our brother and sister organizations out there [who are actively fighting it]. We shouldn't be forced to rob Peter to pay Paul … I think that's what the rest of the veteran service organization community feels, as well."

To date, IAVA has led the charge against the proposed dependent BAH reduction, which wasn't surprising to some observers considering the current GI Bill was drafted with those serving in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in mind.

Standing alongside IAVA at a recent rally against the cut on Capitol Hill were officials from the Air Force Sergeants Association, Association of the U.S. Navy, Commissioned Officers Association of the U.S. Public Health Service, the Military Order of the Purple Heart and Vietnam Veterans of America. The groups joined a half-dozen Democrat lawmakers at the event.

During the rally, IAVA Chief Executive Officer Paul Rieckhoff said he would oppose the entire budget "unless they remove this cut" from the bill.

The latest group to staunchly oppose the cut is the Non-Commissioned Officers Association, which issued a "call to action" for members to contact their congressional delegation.

"We're completely opposed to Congress doing anything to devalue the promises put out there to veterans," said John Osgrowski, NCOA's legislative director. "Veterans make up such a small percentage of the population, but they don't go after Social Security or other entitlement programs."

Rick Weidman, executive director of Vietnam Veterans of America, told Military.com on Tuesday that no veterans program should "be cannibalized" to provide for another veterans program. Weidman said that has always been the VVA's view.

Weidman said when lawmakers asked him where they should get the money to pay for everything in the veteran's budget, he suggested they take it out of the Overseas Contingency Operations account, essentially the Defense Department's go-to war fund, which is exempt from the spending caps imposed on other parts of the budget and is often used to fund portions of the base budget, or non-war items.

"They said, ‘You can't do that,'" Weidman told Military.com. "I said, ‘You know what? We spent trillions to send these kids into harm's way at a cost to them and their families and now you want to take away from families to do something else?'"

For the first time in history, he said, the U.S. went to war not only without raising taxes to pay for it, but approving tax cuts.

"Laura Bush wasn't out there selling bonds to pay for it," he said. "It was ‘go to the mall and spend.' And they wonder why the kids are having a hard time when they come home. This is a serious statement -- that it ought to come out of OCO."

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at Bryant.jordan@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BryantJordan.

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