Washington_Nearly half the members of one of the longest serving U.S. military units in Iraq are not eligible for a more generous military educational benefit, with some falling one day short of eligibility.
The Army has agreed to review the status of the Minnesota National Guard's 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 34th Infantry Division, with an eye toward improving their educational benefits.
All 2,600 of the soldiers, who returned this year from Iraq, are eligible for money for school under the GI Bill. But nearly half discovered they weren't eligible for a more generous package of benefits available to other soldiers.
The Army Board for Correction of Military Records, which says its mission is "to correct errors in or remove injustices from Army military records," will be reviewing the cases.
"We will work closely with the Minnesota guardsman to get them the assistance they need, and we will do so with the board as well," said Army spokesman Paul Boyce.
Minnesota lawmakers say they're hopeful the review will lead to greater educational benefits. But just in case, Rep. John Kline introduced legislation Wednesday that would resolve the problem. Kline, R-Minn., spoke with Army Secretary Pete Geren this week.
"The board is aware of this problem, and he is confident this will fix the problem," said Kline, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee.
Kline hopes that his legislation will pass the House under unanimous consent in the next week or two, and that the Senate will follow suit.
"We'd like to make this certain for these soldiers," he said. "Then we don't have to rely on the board to look at each member." But he added that he still wants the board process to move forward.
Earlier this week, the state's two senators, Republican Norm Coleman and Democrat Amy Klobuchar, said that Geren told them he had recommended that the board expedite the review.
"As the longest serving combat unit in Iraq, we owe the members of the 1/34th Brigade Combat Team the benefits they have earned," Klobuchar said. "The path of opportunity and success shouldn't be tied up in red tape."
"It is simply irresponsible to deny education benefits to these soldiers who just completed the longest tour of duty of any unit in Iraq, especially given the fact that they were demobilized just days before they would become eligible," said Coleman.
Under the GI Bill, two categories of educational benefits are available to Guard soldiers: one for those who have served less than two years and another for those who have put in more time. Among other things, the latter benefit provides as much as $800 per month for full-time training while the former provides $282.
"The Minnesota National Guard believes that all of these soldiers, who served 20 consecutive months or longer, on active duty as part of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, should be entitled to the same benefits for their dedicated service to the nation," said Lt. Col. Kevin Olson, a spokesman for the Minnesota Guard.