Editor’s Note: Mike Rounds is the junior Republican US Senator from South Dakota and serves on the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs. Scott Peters is the Democratic US Representative from California’s 52nd district and serves on the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. The views expressed in this commentary are their own.
The current post-9/11 GI bill only provides full education benefits to veterans who have served a minimum of three years
Mike Rounds and Scott Peters: The bill should be revised to give all Purple Heart recipients full benefits
In December 2001, just months after the attacks of September 11 shook our nation, Sergeant Adrian Aranda of the United States Marine Corps was on a foot patrol outside of Kandahar Airport in Afghanistan. Kandahar had been liberated from the Taliban just days before, a significant step in the US mission to track down Osama bin Laden and deny al Qaeda a safe haven inside Afghanistan.
During that patrol, a landmine detonated directly behind Aranda. One of his patrol mates lost his foot in the explosion and another was wounded by shrapnel and had hearing damage. Aranda sustained burns, shrapnel damage to the left side of his body, a broken hand, hearing damage and a traumatic brain injury. He and his squad mates received Purple Hearts for their service in the war on terrorism.
Every Purple Heart medal is earned. With roots dating back to the American Revolution, the Purple Heart has been awarded to millions of American service members who are wounded fighting an enemy of the United States, or to the family of those killed in action. Every Purple Heart recipient has his or her own story – just like Aranda’s – of sacrifice for the sake of America’s safety.
But Aranda’s story didn’t end that day in Afghanistan.
After separating from the Marine Corps, Aranda pursued his education to set himself up for his post-military career. He first earned an associate’s degree from a community college, and then graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Texas Tech. During this process, Aranda discovered that he was eligible for only half of the benefits provided under the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill – which gives veterans from the war on terror assistance to pay for their education – because he had not served the required three years of active duty.
This despite the fact that he had been seriously wounded in the line of duty and received a Purple Heart.
We made a promise to the veterans who rushed to serve their country after 9/11 that we would honor their sacrifice and stand by them when they returned. That’s why Congress passed the Post-9/11 GI Bill in the first place – to expand education benefits so they match the 21st century challenges that our veterans face when they come home.
It’s wrong that any Purple Heart veteran who suffered a life-changing injury in the line of duty be excluded from full benefits, but we’re working to fix it. The two of us have introduced corresponding bills in the House and the Senate to extend full Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to every honorably discharged Purple Heart recipient now and in the future.
Aranda is not alone, either. In 2006, Marine Reservist Jonathan Richard Goldman was called into active duty in the middle of his undergraduate studies. Goldman deployed to Fallujah, a city that had seen some of the most intense street-to-street fighting in the Iraq War. On September 4, 2006, his vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive device. Goldman suffered a concussion, burns, an ankle injury and shrapnel wounds to his left knee. For these injuries, he was awarded the Purple Heart.
Goldman returned home with his unit two months after the attack and was separated from active duty along with the rest of his unit. He went on to complete the degree that had been interrupted by his service and remained in the reserves until 2012, when he retired as a sergeant. But despite bearing battle scars and his Purple Heart medal, Goldman also did not qualify for full Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits because he, too, had not served the requisite three years of active duty.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill expanded veterans’ education benefits to cover tuition and fees to a college or university, a monthly housing allowance and a stipend for books and supplies. In our changing economy, these benefits are necessary to help our veterans get the skills and education they need to make a successful transition to civilian life. These benefits are based on a rating system, with full benefits for veterans who complete at least 36 months of active duty service or are medically retired.
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Even after everything they gave in service to their country, Sgts. Aranda and Goldman did not qualify for full benefits. One out of every five Purple Heart recipients from the war on terror who are using their education benefits are in the same position, and many others are discouraged from pursuing an education at all because their benefit doesn’t cover the full cost of enrolling.
Our bills would give these wounded warriors full benefits and would help an estimated 660 Purple Heart recipients every year pursue a college degree or vocational training so they can land a good job and make the peaceful, prosperous transition to civilian life they deserve.
Supporting our veterans is an issue that still gets broad bipartisan support in Congress. Our bill has already been passed by the House Veterans Affairs Committee, and we are working to build more support in Congress to get the bill signed into law as soon as possible.
At our time of greatest need, these brave service members fought and bled for us. They don’t just deserve these benefits. Just like their Purple Heart medals, they have earned them.