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The Des Moines Register - Obama Joins Fight over GI Benefits

Location: Washington, DC

The Des Moines Register - Obama Joins Fight over GI Benefits

Jane Norman

Presidential candidate Barack Obama and the entire Iowa
congressional delegation are demanding answers from Defense Secretary Robert
Gates and President Bush as to why hundreds of Iowa National Guard members
were shortchanged on their GI Bill benefits.

The Iowans want the president to issue an executive order to immediately grant the benefits so soldiers can sign up for the spring semester. Obama said he wonders how often the same thing has happened to other Guard members.

The Guard members "have done everything we have asked of them," Obama, a
Democratic senator from Illinois campaigning in Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses, wrote Gates in a letter sent today. "And at a minimum, we owe them educational benefits that are accessible and commensurate with their noble service."

A spokesman for President Bush said the White House is working with Congress on the issue, and an expedited process has been put in place. Spokesman Alex Conant said he could not speculate, however, on whether an executive order might be issued.

Soldiers from Iowa's 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry who returned from nearly two years on active duty, much of it in combat in Iraq, discovered that in some cases their service orders were written for just short of 730 days.

That meant they couldn't receive full GI Bill educational benefits that provide more reimbursement for tuition costs than those granted to reservists. Full benefits also allow those who have left the military to receive reimbursements over a longer period.

Most of the soldiers are from northeast Iowa. Rep. Bruce Braley, a Waterloo Democrat who began pressing the Army for action last week, said today he has no reason to believe the orders were written short on purpose but it does raise suspicions. "This doesn't pass the smell test," Braley said.

Rep. Tom Latham, an Ames Republican, has asked for an investigation by the
Army inspector general.

Army officials have said they're working to rectify the problem in time for the spring semester, but Obama in his letter to Gates asked for a wide review of how often such problems occur. He also asked if the Pentagon plans to provide waivers for other soldiers with similar shortchanged orders.

It's an example of the complexity of education benefits currently offered to returning service members and varying eligibility requirements, Obama said.

Also, both of Iowa's senators, every member of the House from Iowa and 21 other members of Congress from both political parties joined in a letter to Bush asking for his help. "We're going straight to the top to get this changed," said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Ia.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Ia., said that Iowans served in the longest continuous deployment of the war, with 17 months in Iraq. "To claim now that they did not spend enough time deployed to qualify for benefits is absurd on its face," Harkin said.

The lawmakers said some 1,200 members of the First Brigade Combat Team of
the 34th Infantry, which included the Iowans, have been affected. That includes soldiers from Minnesota, New Jersey, North Dakota, Idaho and Wisconsin.

This unit, known as the Red Bulls, has a history of excellence and bravery dating back to the Civil War, lawmakers said. During their time in Iraq they drove more than 4,500 round-trip convoy missions logging 2.2 million miles, fought al Qaida and provided security on military bases.

The secretary of the Army does not have the authority to amend the shortchanged orders and the issue has been referred to the Army Board for Correction of Military Records, which is working on a case-by-case basis rather than allowing a more speedy group review, the letter to Bush said.

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