Sunday, April 20, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Patrick Campbell, a former Iraq war combat medic, emerged in a happy spot late one evening last week.
Campbell had hit the magic number in his quest to push a bill through Congress to beef up college benefits for the troops coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Half of the House had now signed on as supporters, along with a near supermajority of 60 sponsors in the Senate.
He knows this because he has it all organized, Army-like, on a spreadsheet.
Ask him about any member of Congress, and he can tell you where he stands.
“Berkley?” he says, referring to Nevada Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley. She’s on the bill.
Heller? The phone line goes silent as he consults the spreadsheet. “I sent him e-mail this very morning.” The note to Nevada Republican Rep. Dean Heller suggests that “his chance to sign on to the GI Bill was running out,” Campbell says.
“I feel like I’m the conductor on the train saying, ‘All aboard! History in the making.’ This is going to be the most important piece of legislation this Congress is going to pass.”
After years of failed efforts to modernize the GI Bill by beefing up education benefits for veterans, political and economic forces at work this spring may lead to an overhaul.
As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drag on, the nation’s veterans groups have coalesced around a shared goal: Give the 1.5 million enlisted and reserve personnel who have served since 9/11 a way to readjust to civilian life via educational opportunities on par with those offered returning GIs after World War II.
Lawmakers are finding they cannot say no — even as the Bush administration opposes the bill.
The Defense Department believes the improved benefits would create an uncomfortable problem: Given the chance to go to the public university of their choice, soldiers and Marines just might quit the military to do so.
“Today, the Services are facing stiff challenges to recruiting,” Tom Bush, the Pentagon’s principal director of manpower and personnel, said in written testimony to a Senate committee. “The potential benefits ... must be carefully evaluated in light of the difficulties some of the Services are currently experiencing in the recruiting market.”
Sen. John McCain, the presumed Republican presidential nominee, echoed that sentiment last week, drawing heated reaction from vets and anti-war groups who have been urging him to join the cause.
The central bill under consideration, the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act, is sponsored by Sen. James Webb, D-Va., a Marine and former Reagan administration Navy secretary who won election in 2006 after campaigning in the boots worn by his son, then serving in Iraq.
The bill would replace the monthly $1,100 benefit available for college. Instead, the government would pay veterans to attend the state universities of their choice. They would also receive a $1,000 annual stipend for books, as well as a coveted housing allowance. The idea is to make any public university in the nation affordable.
In Nevada, for example, vets choosing to attend UNLV or UNR would receive full tuition for those schools, the $1,000 book stipend as well as a monthly living allowance of about $1,100 (a little more for Northern Nevada, a little less for Southern Nevada).
The bill would also extend comparable benefits to National Guard and Reserve forces, who now receive a portion of the benefits of active duty troops.
Campbell’s group estimates that annual benefits for Nevada’s post-9/11 vets would increase from $9,900 a year to as much as $15,000 if they enrolled in the state’s costliest public universities.
Overall, the state would get as much as a $15.5 million increase in available educational benefits. Currently 3,300 vets in Nevada are receiving GI Bill benefits.
Republicans quietly grumble that the price tag is too high — between $2.5 billion and $4 billion annually. Webb has been paring back the bill, eliminating such features as the housing stipend for part-time students or those who study online. He hopes to get the price tag closer to $2.5 billion annually.
Elliott Anderson, a 9/11 vet now active in Democratic politics in Nevada, is disheartened Congress is even debating whether to increase benefits for vets.
“We’ve got folks going on more tours than they did in Vietnam, and fighting longer than they did in World War II, and getting less for it,” he said by phone from Las Vegas. “Seems to me you have a moral obligation to take care of the troops you send into harm’s way.”
At a veterans scholarship awards ceremony last month in Las Vegas, Berkley called on her fellow members of Congress to sign on to the bill, versions of which she has supported ever since she first came to Congress in 1999 and took a seat on the Veterans Affairs Committee.
Republican Rep. Jon Porter signed on just over a week ago, saying the benefits are past due and are “critical to a service member’s readjustment to civilian life.”
Heller is not a supporter but his spokesman said the congressman is “constantly evaluating legislation that will help our country’s veterans.” The spokesman noted that Heller recently introduced legislation that would help Nevada’s rural vets who often travel far for medical care by giving them up to $400 in tax deductions for travel expenses if they live more than 25 miles from a Veterans’ Affairs medical facility. The bill has six sponsors.
Nevada Republican Sen. John Ensign said he is withholding comment until he sees the final version of the bill in the Senate.
Berkley argues that at the rate of spending on the war in Iraq — $4,000 a second — the nation could in moments be covering college costs for a returning veteran.
Her spokeswoman said the congresswoman’s frustration is over “the refusal of some to acknowledge the cost of taking care of vets. Why is it that it’s taking this long to do any of these things?”
Berkley, who was among the first in the House to sign on to the bill, said in a statement: “This is about choosing priorities and living up to the promises that America made to our troops.”
“Modernizing the GI bill for the 21st century will provide our heroes with the chance to earn an education that can open the doors to a new world of career opportunities outside, or inside, the military,” she said.