SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras -- Nearly 300 Marines came home from their seven-month deployment to Central America this week. They have a few things in tow -- wood carvings from local artisans and the grit of experience responding to Hurricane Matthew, among the world's worst recent natural disasters.
But the reservists returned without something that most were counting on: seven months of GI Bill benefits.
A relatively new and obscure deployment code, a measure the Pentagon created in 2014 to scale back spending on benefits, is the reason. By law, reservists involuntarily mobilized under Title 10, section 12304b, do not receive credit for the GI Bill while they are activated.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill is paid out by the amount of active-duty time racked up. Reservists say deployments are in high demand in part because education benefits will grow much faster than relying on drill time.
Nearly a million reservists have deployed since Sept. 11, 2001, according to data from the Pentagon's Defense Manpower Data Center.
Marine Sgt. William Hubbard is one of nearly 600 Marine reservists affected since 2014. He deployed to Honduras in May as part of the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force, a rapid-response unit based in Honduras to strengthen security in the region and respond to natural disasters, like Hurricane Matthew in October.
His civilian job lends him a special perspective on restricting access to the GI Bill.
He is the vice president of government affairs at Student Veterans of America, a national veterans advocacy group that focuses on education policy.
Hubbard said fellow Marines in Honduras are stunned as the word has slowly spread through the ranks. Most incorrectly believed they would receive seven to nine months' worth of credit for GI Bill benefits, including Hubbard, a benefits legislation expert.
"Reservists serve their country like any other component, and they have to balance civilian employment, education and the military," Hubbard said. "And to say they don't rate the full benefit? It doesn't add up."
Every reserve component has used authorization 12304b since its creation; 1,780 reservists from across the military have deployed under the code, according to data from each reserve service branch released to Stars and Stripes.
The actual number is certainly higher. That count does not include the Army National Guard. The National Guard Bureau was unable to produce data on mobilizations under that authorization after weeks of requests.
The Army Reserves accounted for the largest share with 1,100. The Air National Guard has activated 87 airmen since 2014.
The Navy Reserves, with six activations, used authorization 12304b instead of more common authorities to learn its unique procedure and to retain that institutional knowledge, said Cullen James, a Navy Reserves spokesman.
James and other Navy spokesmen could not say how the mobilization of individual sailors is made under 12304b, referring questions to Pentagon officials with insight into manpower and personnel staffing issues. Those repeated requests also went unfulfilled.
Capt. Christopher Scholl, director of Navy Reserve public affairs, said sailors are informed the authorization lacks certain benefits when they are mobilized.
Susan Lukas, director of legislative and military policy at the Reserve Officers Association, a Washington advocacy group, said Tuesday that she doubted that many reservists are aware of 12304b.
"People go into it kind of blind," Lukas said.
The exception has fueled the belief that reservists are not afforded the same benefits as active duty troops. Hubbard estimated only a third of the reservists at Soto Cano knew they would not receive GI Bill accrual time, based mostly on his effort to spread the information.
Sgt. Mark Wong, a Marine reservist based in Cleveland, Ohio, said he was frustrated to learn about the authorization withholding benefits.
"Once I heard about the exemption, it blew my mind. We work the same hours as active duty people doing the same job," he said.
"The government is saying our sacrifice isn't worth as much as it is for those on active duty. But we leave behind families and our civilian careers too," Wong said.
He works in the intelligence and criminal justice field as a civilian, which requires an advanced degree to receive promotions, he said. He was counting on GI Bill funds to apply to a graduate program.
Hubbard also planned to enter an MBA program. He said active duty officers have the option to take sabbaticals to earn masters degrees -- an acknowledgement that education is a priority for the force, which adds to the frustration.
"At this point I have to take a step back to assess the financial viability. This would make the difference between doing it or not," Hubbard said of the exemption of earning GI Bill benefits.
"Now I have to decide between starting a family or my education, and not both."
The issue of the 12304b authority starts with the Pentagon.
Guard and reserve troops saw repeated deployments during operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, and were mobilized with benefits like pre- and post-deployment Tricare health insurance and GI Bill accrual time, similar to active duty troops.
As combat deployments slowed, the Pentagon looked to create mobilization authorities that would fill operational needs worldwide, but also trim the budget, Lukas said.
The 12304b authorization was included in the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act and stripped most mobilization and deployment benefits, Lukas said, including the accumulation of GI Bill benefits. The Pentagon started activating reservists under the authorization in 2014, she said.
"Mobilization authorities with benefits are expensive," Lukas said. "And the Pentagon did not have the money to offset the cost. Congress gave them exactly what they asked for."
The Pentagon did not produce answers to repeated requests from Stars and Stripes about how and why combatant commands choose to use 12304b instead of other authorities.
One reason appears to be the need to balance mobilization with cuts to the active duty force and tighter defense spending.
"We need more flexible access to the reserve component, specifically for emerging missions," Gen. Daniel Allyn, the Army's vice chief of staff, told the House Armed Services Committee in February.
The Pentagon's 2017 budget called for doubling reserve mobilizations, in part to ease the strain of operations across the globe, from the fight against the Islamic State group to ramped-up deployments in Europe in the face of growing Russian aggression. That means the use of 12304b is certain to increase in 2017 and beyond, Lukas said.
Cutting education benefits from certain reserve mobilizations is a frustrating evolution for the post-9/11 GI Bill, Lukas said.
The benefit pays part or all tuition and a housing stipend based on a sliding scale of active duty time. It was designed as a recruitment and retention tool, she said, and deep cuts may signal to troops that time spent away from civilian careers is not worth the investment.
"The reserves are going to move into retention problems because of things like 12304b. The services are slashing manpower. Employment is better on the outside now. How many reasons are there not to join?" she said. "Now there are more."
Risk and danger
Risks and dangers in Honduras have increased frustrations on top of zero GI Bill benefits, Hubbard said, particularly after a deployment in Spartan conditions.
Marines at Soto Cano, along with their families, expressed mounting anxieties of returning home with the Zika virus, Stars and Stripes reported Oct. 28.
A medical officer there confirmed broad testing would not be done unless troops had symptoms, worrying families that babies born after their return could have microcephaly, a birth defect linked to the virus.
Marines here have internet access and televisions. But there is also a film of dust and termite droppings and their shed wings covering the floor in wooden huts, where roosters peck and roam free underneath the floorboards.
Some Marines were stationed on the Honduran coast in a poor village without reliable water access. They had to travel more than a mile to shower in a local hotel, Hubbard said.
A third of the Marines in the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force deployed from Honduras to Haiti in the wake of Hurricane Matthew, assisting in the mission to airlift 273 metric tons of food, water and medical supplies across the storm-ravaged west.
"I don't think the commanders expected reservists to perform as well as we did," Hubbard said. "But they said we pulled it off without a hitch."
Hubbard advocates for student veterans in Washington as his civilian job, and he sees two possible solutions to the issue.
President Barack Obama could direct the Department of Veterans Affairs through an executive order to waive the exemption, he said. VA will not grant education benefits for reservists activated under 12304b, he said.
"It would be very unlikely," Hubbard said of that option. "VA is risk-adverse and interprets the law very strictly."
VA spokesman Randy Noller acknowledged that VA's hands are tied in granting GI Bill credit.
"VA supports such a change and a legislative proposal was included in the president's Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2017 that would amend the statutory provisions" of 12304b, he said.
The other option, Hubbard said, is for the authorization to be modified through a law passed by Congress.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., proposed the National Guard 12304b Benefits Parity Act in May. The bill would grant GI Bill benefits to reservists along with health care and retirement benefits, according to Michael Dale-Stein, a spokesman for Franken. But it has not moved from the Senate's Armed Services Committee since its introduction.
"The men and women who serve our country lay everything on the line to protect us, and in return, they deserve access to the support and benefits that they've rightfully earned," Franken said in a statement to Stars and Stripes.
"But unfortunately, too many members of the National Guard in both Minnesota and across the country who served on active duty came home and couldn't get important health care and education support," he said.
A joint letter from Franken and Cornyn sent to Defense Secretary Ash Carter in April highlighted the issue. The senators asked Carter for his assistance in the letter, which described Minnesota National Guard troops deployed to Egypt, facing artillery and mortar fire for up to seven months.
"Upon their return from duty, they applied for educational benefits only to learn that the Department had directed the Department of Veterans Affairs to issue a denial for active service under Section 12304b," the letter stated.
Education out of reach
The Marine reservists arrived at Camp Lejeune, N.C., this week for post-deployment assessments and briefs. The briefs are typical during demobilizations, when reservists are instructed on benefits like VA health care and education resources.
A VA benefits counselor was unaware that the Marines were reservists mobilized under 12304b and was not prepared to discuss or clarify the exemption of GI Bill benefits, one Marine said Tuesday, speaking anonymously since he was not authorized to discuss the briefings.
The briefing quickly descended into a long, Kafkaesque presentation of benefits that did not apply to the group, the Marine said. Not everyone understood they would not receive GI Bill accrual time. A senior officer stepped in to push the education benefit issue aside, and the issue was dropped without clarification, the Marine said.
The shock of receiving no GI Bill credit isn't limited by rank or experience among the Marines who served at Soto Cano, said Sgt. Oscar Rodriguez, a reservist based in Riverside, Calif. He heard majors and captains elated about the active duty time and describing their plans to start MBA programs. They also misunderstood the deployment authorization, he said.
Rodriguez arrived in Honduras 13 days after he received word of the involuntary deployment. A senior officer in his unit softened the blow of the sudden mobilization by talking up benefits. "At least you'll rack up the GI Bill," Rodriguez was told.
That idea was attractive to Rodriguez. He spent time working odd jobs operating forklifts before the Honduras deployment, and going to college, with the government picking up some costs, was his plan.
He found out education benefits would not be available in mid-October, spending most of the deployment with plans to attend school.
Receiving credit for these months would be crucial. Rodriguez has accrued about five months of active duty time after five years in the Marine Corps Reserves. That will pay 50 percent tuition at nearby University of California-Riverside, along with $983 a month in housing allowance, according to VA's GI Bill calculator.
If he had received benefits from the mobilization, VA would cover 60 percent of his tuition and $1,179 a month in housing allowance. The difference in tuition would be about $5,600 for a four-year degree.
For now, he said, education feels out of reach.
"I may push it to fall semester next year, or the year after that," Rodriguez said. "So I'll have to find a full-time job."