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Veterans groups, educators on LI hail expansion of GI Bill

The current GI Bill helps Keran Howard, 52,

The current GI Bill helps Keran Howard, 52, of Hempstead, attend Nassau Community College. An expanded measure called Forever GI Bill comes too late for the veteran, who was discharged from the Navy in 2003. Credit: Newsday / Megan Miller

An expansion of the GI Bill approved by Congress last week is being hailed by veterans and college administrators alike as boon to the fortunes of ex-military personnel hoping to reshape their lives with academic degrees.

“This really is a necessity for veteran students who may not have been able to begin college as soon as they got out of the service,” said Evangeline Manjares, dean of veterans services at Nassau Community College in Garden City.

The legislation, also known as the Forever GI Bill, would end the current 15-year post-discharge time limit for tapping GI Bill education benefits for those who left the service in 2013 and after. It also would provide additional cash support for veterans pursuing scientific and technological subjects.

The bill would allow National Guard and reserve troops to accrue benefits more like active duty troops. And it would make Purple Heart recipients eligible for 100 percent of GI Bill benefits, regardless of the length of their military service.

The Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017, with an estimated cost of $3 billion over 10 years, is expected to be signed by President Donald Trump.

The drive to persuade Congress to pass what had begun as 18 separate bills involved the united efforts of several national veterans groups, including Student Veterans of America, The American Legion, The Military Order of the Purple Heart, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, Vietnam Veterans of America and Got Your 6.

“Thankfully, a massive coalition formed and we came through,” said Kristofer Goldsmith, an Iraq War veteran and former Bellmore resident who lobbied for the legislation as a staff member of Vietnam Veterans of America.

At Nassau Community College, nearly 400 of roughly 20,000 students made use of GI Bill funding last year, Manjares said.

Manjares said veterans often delay entering college for myriad reasons — often for a decade or more.

Veterans often struggle to adapt to civilian life once out of uniform and balk at the challenge of returning to an academic environment with students who are a dozen or more years younger than they are. Still others find themselves encumbered by family obligations, and may defer college as they put their own children through school.

A few struggle with combat-related psychological troubles resulting in insomnia, depression or irritability, which can make focusing on studies almost impossible.

Manjares said one student who began the process of applying to NCC last week was a single father currently residing in a homeless shelter. She said the GI Bill’s housing allowance — as much as $3,100 per month for an NCC student — will allow him to move into an apartment with his daughter.

“It’s a great motivation for them to be able to come to school,” she said. “I don’t think he would be able to pursue an education without the GI Bill.”

Even in its expanded version, though, the bill leaves some veterans on the sidelines. Keran Howard, 52, said the bill — which eliminates the sunset provision for veterans discharged from active duty after Jan. 1, 2013 — comes too late to help him.

The Hempstead resident deferred going to college while he began a new family after his 2003 discharge from the Navy. Even after he enrolled at NCC, work and a young daughter distracted him from taking more than a class or two at a time.

Howard said the current 15-year limit on his GI Bill benefits means his eligibility will end early next year — before he can earn the remaining 24 credits for an associate degree in social services.

“Life got in the way, but that’s life,” Howard said. “I’m not going to be grandfathered in. I’m going to be stuck.”

Highlights of Forever GI Bill

Here are some of the key provisions of the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017, named for the principal architect of the original GI Bill:

  • Sunset provision eliminated: Allows veterans discharged after Jan. 1, 2013, to use earned benefits at any point in their lives, as opposed to the current 15-year deadline.
  • Benefit accrual: Allows National Guard and reserve troops who are hospitalized or recovering from active-duty injuries to accrue time toward their GI Bill eligibility. Currently only active duty troops do so.
  • Honoring the wounded in action: Extends full eligibility for the Post-9/11 GI Bill to any veteran who has received a Purple Heart since Sept. 11, 2001.
  • Aid for dependents: Allows dependents of service members who die while on active duty to use the service member’s “Yellow Ribbon” education benefit, which covers public or private tuition costs equal to those charged by their most expensive state university.
  • Science, technology incentive: Pays GI Bill recipients as much as an additional $30,000 to help them complete a degree in science or technology.

Source: House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs website

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