by Warren Freeman
A few weeks ago, a friend asked me, “What one complaint would you make about your veteran benefits.” I honestly had not given much thought to my benefits since retiring but, one area that I always thought was unfair (given the lengths that we now see being offered to service member these days) was the requirement to complete educational benefits within 10 years of separation.
When I decided to end my Navy career, completing college was the next step in making my transition into the civilian sector. Near the end of my 21 years of service, education had begun to be an important requirement to advancement. Although I had completed some college “afloat” classes, the demand for strong leadership at all of my duty stations made attending college during off-duty hours nearly impossible. As a Chief Petty Officer, I was assigned to a variety of jobs that moved me from my assigned geographical area from time to time. Upon completing one assignment, I was placed in areas that still required strong leadership and competence to ensure that the goals of the Navy were met first. Although I was unable to attend college, my performance of duty was rewarded with advancement to Senior Chief Petty Officer and finally, Master Chief Petty Officer within 17 years of service.
My advancement to Master Chief Petty Officer occurred early on in an assignment to sea duty. One would say, “Wow, you’ve made Master Chief. You should now concentrate on doing other things that will advance you.” I can honestly say that throughout my career, I felt that if my juniors were not advancing and becoming good leaders, then I was failing them. I accepted roles such as Command Managed Equal Opportunity Representative to ensure the fair treatment of all. This role also made me responsible for integrating one of the first groups of female sailors and officers onboard a large platform. I was able to complete some college afloat classes while underway.
My next assignment was a tour of shore duty at a headquarters that required me to regularly walk on Navy carriers and fly off following various phases of trainings. Again, the opportunity to attend college was not feasible due to the requirements of the duty assignment. Near the end of this tour, colleges had began to now offer various ways to now gain a degree. I chose to retire from the Navy at this time.
My decision to retire would now allow me to finally accomplish the goal of obtaining a college degree. Two months prior to retiring, I received word that my three nieces in Texas, ages 3, 5, and 7, were about to become wards of the state due to continual substance abuse by my sister and the inability of anyone else to take care of them. My wife and I decided to adopt them rather than to provide foster care. At the time, we had our two children, ages 16 and 14. To us, foster care allowed the option of changing our mind if things didn’t go well at any point. We knew that these girls needed someone committed to providing them a stable and loving environment. We had been advised that we would receive assistance from the state. The assistance turned out to be two-thirds less than what we would have received as foster parents. I had to go to work and eventually bring my wife off her job to properly take care of them.
After gaining employment, the demands of a five-child household just continued to grow and the prospect of finishing college seemed to continuously diminish. My experience in communications allowed me to land employment that helped meet the financial demands of a seven-person household but required travel to overseas areas and involved varied lengths of time for each assignment. As the dust began to settle after approximately 8 years, the college “dream” became just that. The energy and desire was no longer there and time was running out faster than I could catch my breath and regroup for a second run.
I have no regrets for deciding to take care of my family as best as I possibly could. But as I have watched the efforts to improve military family life over the years, I wonder what other veterans believe their life/lifestyle would be if given the opportunity to complete their educations, or, pass the benefit on to someone in their immediate family.
It would be interesting to see the VA survey Vietnam-Era GI Bill eligible veterans to gain some insight as to how many veterans did not use their full eligibility and why. Questions should include:
1) What year were you discharged?
2) How many dependents did you have at the time of your discharge?
3) Was your spouse employed at the time of your discharge?
4) Does your spouse have a degree?
5) How soon following your discharge did you become employed?
6) Were you a full-time employee?
7) How many years of Vietnam-Era GI Bill did you utilize after your discharge?
8) Did your home utilize a computer at the time of your discharge?
9) Were online degrees available at the time of your discharge?
10) Do you believe that the opportunity to attend college was a possibility given your economic status?
11) Do you believe that the opportunity to attend college should have a deadline for completion as a veteran?
12) Do you believe that GI Bill benefits should be transferrable to at least one dependent with some limitations?
13) Explain your situation that limited your opportunity to pursue a college degree following your discharge.
14) Do you know where unused funds that were set aside for this program were transferred to?
In summary, I believe that individuals formerly entitled to the Vietnam-Era GI Bill were unfairly treated regarding the established deadline for obtaining a college degree. There is constant scrutiny of the benefits given to military retirees and this is an example of the inflexibility of the requirements. At a minimum, a retiree should be able to transfer their opportunity for a degree to a direct family member (i.e. spouse, son, or daughter).