By John J. KruzelJune 26, 2008
WASHINGTON, (AFPS, June 25, 2008) - A Defense Department spokesman Wednesday expressed satisfaction that a proposed GI Bill allowing servicemembers to transfer their education benefits to family members passed the first round of congressional voting.
But he also expressed concern that a possible provision of the bill could hurt the department's efforts to retain servicemembers.
The U.S. House of Representatives last week passed a version of the bill that would provide military members a more generous education package, which for the first time could be passed to family members if troops opt not to use it themselves.
"The No. 1 priority of this department was that any enhanced benefit coming out of the Congress provide for the ability for servicemembers to transfer any unused benefit to their family members," Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said during a Pentagon news conference.
But while the Defense Department is pleased the House version incorporates transferability, Morrell said, officials have voiced concern that the amount of time before the benefits become available -- after 36 months of service -- may hurt retention rates.
"That -- we've said from the beginning -- we believe, is too soon," Morrell said. "But if that's the way the Congress ultimately chooses to go, ... we will work with it."
The bill will next appear before the Senate, where it must receive approval before being enacted. Meanwhile, the Defense Department intends to study what effects the bill would have on military retention if it passes in its present form, Morrell said.
"If we find that it's having an adverse affect on retention, we're going to have to figure out other ways to entice men and women in uniform to stay in the service," he said.
Morrell suggested that bigger financial bonuses for re-enlistment could be offered if servicemembers become "lured out" of uniform by taking advantage of the new package, which would double the education benefit from about $9,000 to about $18,000 per year and kick in during the first enlistment.
The spokesman added that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is more pleased that the bill includes transferability than he is disappointed that it could adversely affect retention.
In other Defense Department news, Gates was scheduled to hold a meeting this afternoon to discuss an investigation by the Government Accountability Office - the investigative arm of Congress -- that found improper practices related to an Air Force tanker contract.
The GAO last week recommended the Air Force reopen the bidding process for the service's aerial refueling aircraft contract. The recommendation came after a review of the contract process that in February selected the Northrop-Grumman/EADS/Airbus consortium as the winner of the $35 billion contract. Boeing Co., which had submitted a competing bid, protested the decision.
Morrell said Gates would meet with representatives of the Pentagon's acquisition, technology and logistics office, the Air Force, and with Defense Department lawyers.
"It will be the first time he has had a chance to hear from them about the GAO's recommendations, as well as the preliminary analysis that's been done within the department on how those recommendations would potentially impact the Air Force's February decision to award the new tanker contract to Northrop Grumman and EADS," he said.
The Defense Department has 60 days from the release of the investigation report to respond to the GAO, Morrell said. He added that the secretary -- who is "intimately involved" in the issue -- hopes to move as quickly as possible.
"The secretary is just about to begin reviewing the various options available to him, and will chart a course as to the way ahead as soon as possible," he said.
(John J. Kruzel writes for the American Forces Press Service)