Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Letters from War

So I am done here in a few days and there is pretty much nothing to do but refresh Reddit and Facebook every few seconds, hoping for something interesting to happen. I will be returning to school soon after I get back and I have some big concerns about the new Post 9/11 G.I. Bill. I decided to draft a letter and send it off. Thanks to Loopy Libertarian from Chromed Curses for her proofreading. For your consideration:

23 August 2012

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President,

Hello, my name is Joe Snuffy and I am a Specialist in the United States Army National Guard. I am an almost 7 year veteran of the Army as well as both an Iraq (2007-2009) and Afghanistan (2011-2012) combat veteran. I am deployed in northern Afghanistan as I write this letter right now but I am hoping to be home by the time it gets to your mailbox. I am writing to you today to express my concerns over the Post 9/11 (Chapter 33) Montgomery G.I. Bill. I am a senior at Eastern Michigan University majoring in Exercise Science (B.S.), aspiring to continue my education by pursuing a Doctorate degree in Physical Therapy. My educational and career goal is to work within the Veteran's Affairs (VA) healthcare system as a Doctor of Physical Therapy, assisting my fellow veterans to improve their health and quality of life. However, I believe flaws with the way that the Chapter 33 G.I. Bill operates will keep me from this goal. I want to share my issues with you and I do hope to hear back from you.

First and foremost is the tiered eligibility percentage system that determines how much of my tuition will be paid for and how much I will receive as a housing allowance as well as determining the book stipend. This system is flawed – it is very cut and dry with the tiers and unless it is changed to prorate percentages in the future, it devalues my months of service. Assuming I return back home by the time my orders for this current deployment are up, I will have 28 months and 10 days of active duty military service, including basic training. I qualify for 80% of Chapter 33 benefits according to the eligibility charts because I have served at least 24 months of active duty time but I have not served enough time to reach the 30 month tier for 90%. The VA allows a veteran to count active duty time for basic training and AIT once they reach 24 months of eligibility, but if my eligibility is not prorated for an amount in between 80% and 90%, why even count active duty time for basic training and AIT? I still will only receive 80% eligibility. I understand some veterans have longer AIT periods that would perhaps push them into a new tier of eligibility but for those of us who had relatively short AIT periods, why not prorate the eligibility to an amount in between, 85% in my case? An even better system for determining an eligibility percentage would be to place values on each month of service in between the tiers cut-off amounts. I believe we should prorate eligibility in between the tiers, for example, a veteran with 25 months of service would receive 82% or with 26 months of service, would receive 84%, etc. This system would maximize eligibility for veterans without devaluing their active duty service time.

Furthermore, I do believe annual training for National Guardsmen needs to be included in the eligibility calculations. Let me tell you why: I enlisted in 2006 and returned from basic training and Infantry AIT in the fall of 2006. Almost immediately my unit was alerted for deployment to Iraq and began our train up phase which culminated in two, three-week annual training periods for 2007: three weeks in August (AT for fiscal year 2007) and another three weeks at the end of September (AT for fiscal year 2008). We then moved to our mobilization station and deployed to Iraq after. The same scenario occurred prior to our deployment to Afghanistan: we had two, three-week annual training periods back to back (AT for fiscal year 2011 and AT for fiscal year 2012) prior to being placed on Title 10 orders for mobilization training. I have been gone from my home and family since September 2nd of 2011 even though my Title 10 orders did not start until October 16th, 2011. Why is that service not honored when calculating G.I. Bill eligibility? I have spent over half of my 6 year career on active duty training for deployments or deployed. I have spent many more months on annual training crammed together prior to a deployment. I firmly believe that annual training periods, especially those strung together prior to a deployment, should be considered for Chapter 33 G.I. Bill eligibility calculations. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and feedback on this topic.

The second issue I would like to discuss is the method by which Chapter 33 G.I. Bill benefits are paid, specifically the tuition payments. Currently, when tabulating payments to the university, the G.I. Bill is paid last. Scholarships, grants, and student loans are paid towards the bill balance first. The remaining balance (if any) is then paid by the Chapter 33 G.I. Bill. This means that if my tuition bill were to be $4000 and I have $3000 in scholarships, grants, and student loans available, they would pay first and then I would receive 80% towards the remaining balance. On a bill of $4000, the G.I. Bill would only pay $800 and still leave me with an out of pocket expense of $200. This is assuming that I would be able to secure so much additional financial aid. What I believe should happen is that the Chapter 33 G.I. Bill pays first: using the same situation, on a bill of $4000, the G.I. Bill should pay 80% or $3200 of my bill, leaving $800 for me to secure financial aid for or pay out of pocket. This is a much better situation for veterans and I hope that you will look into trying to change this aspect of the G.I. Bill.

The last issue I would like to discuss is the way that classes are covered by the G.I. Bill. This is not just a Chapter 33 issue; it affects all versions of the G.I. Bill. Prior to deploying to Afghanistan, I used the Chapter 1607 (REAP) G.I. Bill because it offered more money for school than the Chapter 33 bill did. The issue I ran into in school was that the G.I. Bill only covers classes required to graduate within the major/minor plan set forth by the university. You are not allowed to use G.I. Bill classes to take prerequisite classes for post-graduate schoolwork. This results in many problems: if the class I need is a prerequisite for post-graduate work and the G.I. Bill will not cover it, I risk both dropping below full-time enrollment for financial aid via the FAFSA system and I also risk dropping below full-time enrollment through the VA for the G.I. Bill. On a few occasions in the past, I have elected to not use my G.I. Bill at all for the semester because too many of my classes were not approved because I did not “need” them. I had to pay out of pocket for the semester and/or rely on private student loans. I could have used the G.I. Bill on a “halftime” or “quarter-time” basis but as far as I am concerned, that is a waste of a month of G.I. Bill eligibility, especially for me as I am seeking to pursue 3 more years of education after my undergraduate work is complete. This problem can also affect veterans in other ways: a veteran using his or her spouse's or parent's healthcare insurance plan may be required to be enrolled as a full-time student. When the G.I. Bill does not cover prerequisite classes, veterans may have to drop below full-time enrollment in order to still use the G.I. Bill to pay for school which may result in them being dropped from the insurance plan. This is a problem that needs to be resolved.

Mr. President, I know you are busy but I also know that you care about veterans. I hope you will take the time to read my letter, look into the issues that I have discussed, and work with the Department of Veteran's Affairs as well as Congress in order to fix these problems. I would very much like to hear back from you. I look forward to reading your response. Thank you for your time.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

That Guy: Issue #1

Everybody knows That Guy: he's the guy in your unit that you avoid at all costs for a variety of reasons. Maybe he's the smelly kid, a dirtbag Soldier, the guy with UCMJ action pending or something else from a long list of possibilities. This is That Guy: Dirtbag Admin NCO edition.

That Guy has been in the battalion for a long time, working in the S6 (Communications) shop at the battalion level as an IT Administrator. On the Iraq deployment, he sat in a cushy office somewhere fixing computer problems until he got an IA violation so bad that he got demoted from CPL to PFC and sent home early. That Guy came to our company, literally, on the last day before the deployment. We were at the armory packing supplies and equipment when he walked in the door. He had signed his DESP at the last minute and his slot in the S6 had already been filled, so he was cross trained for two weeks prior as an 11B and then sent to us. That Guy was assigned to the CoIST because there was no room for him anywhere else. He was shy at first, not having been to the CoIST schoolhouse, and seemed content to hang back and watch us work for awhile.

At the double AT prior to our mobilization, he mostly sat in the back of whatever room we had occupied, smoking cigarettes and surfing the Internet on his tablet PC. At first I thought, well, he doesn't know what he's doing and there are 6 of us, so no big deal. Once we got to the mobilization station, That Guy really started to shitbag out: he never did PT with us and usually spent his free time playing World of Warcraft on his computer (hooked up to the Internet via tether from his cell phone). That Guy is also incredibly messy, leaving a trail of filth and garbage in his wake like Pig Pen from Charlie Brown. That Guy went to phase 1 of OCS but got dropped because he got kicked out of college. That Guy also believes that because he used to be a Corporal, he can talk to NCOs and Officers like he is an NCO, which results in a lot of conflict. That Guy is a radical Republican whose views are so extreme that he clashes with almost everyone in the company. Within the first few days of our mobilization, That Guy alienates himself from our FET (Female Engagement Team) by talking trash about women serving in the military. He constantly makes extremely racist jokes towards our black platoon leaders, despite being a minority himself. He insists that since he was adopted by white parents, he is white. At NTC, That Guy sleeps on the floor on the CP at night instead of working with me. That Guy attends the CoIST mobile schoolhouse at NTC and suddenly becomes an expert in everything related to military intelligence, slowly alienating himself from the rest of the team. He is chosen for ADVON to Afghanistan with the commander and leaves such a mess in the barracks at the mobilization site that it takes the rest of us two days to clean up all the garbage he has left behind.

Arriving in Afghanistan, we find That Guy working in the CP as the admin NCO. Our admin NCO went home during mobilization to command the rear detachment when the order came down to cut the brigade in half. He was hard working, passionate about fixing soldier issues and relentless in getting things done. That Guy is nothing like our actual admin NCO. He is appointed by the commander to handle the day to day admin issues while the First Sergeant is en route into country. He sits at his desk and chain smokes e-cigarettes (he's South Korean) all day, playing World of Warcraft on a satellite he has already bought and set up as a wireless network. He takes University of Phoenix classes online. When Soldiers come in with pay issues, personnel issues, promotion issues or whatever else, That Guy is supposed to help them. Instead, he puts their paperwork into a manila folder behind his desk and goes back to playing World of Warcraft. He completes small tasks given to him by the commander and First Sergeant, just enough to stay off their radar. Whenever he is severely cornered, he throws down the racist card, despite insisting that is he white and not Asian any other time. He sneaks out of work here and there to comb the FOB for any "spare" equipment or supplies people may have left out.

Despite being a staunch Republican, ranting about fiscal conservatism and government waste to anyone that accidentally starts talking about politics with him, That Guy believes that anything on the FOB that isn't bolted down is fair game to steal and mail home to sell on eBay. Over the course of the deployment, instead of helping Soldiers fix their pay, correct their promotion points or get help with another issues, That Guy mails home toughbox after toughbox of government property. Chemlights, lanterns, tube lights, flex cuffs, old uniforms, extra sleeping bags are just some of the items that go missing from around the FOB. I don't really care one way or the other but after awhile, I say something to the First Sergeant who says it's more work than it's worth to curb his sticky hands. The stuff That Guy is stealing isn't technically on the property books and getting any sort of action done against him would be a pain in the ass, possibly falling through anyways. That Guy reveals he is stealing all this stuff to mail home to his parents (he is 30 and lives at home) to sell at the Army surplus store for him because he owes the government $30,000 in back taxes for some "small" tax fraud he committed. He claimed all of his roommates on his taxes as his dependents for 3 years in college. Whoops.

That Guy is put in charge of a MWR Satellite system with 6 laptops and 2 phones to be set up in our back room for the guys in the company to use. He immediately takes one laptop for himself back to his desk so that he can surf the Internet all day without paying for his own satellite. He half ass sets the computers up, not installing any of the programs the guys request to call/video chat back home. Two of the laptops need repaired and despite his primary MOS being in IT, he throws them in a box under his desk for most of the deployment.

Things go on like this for months until our commander gets promoted and we get a new commander. The new commander is from a COP where he spent most of the deployment cold and starving. He is a nice family type of guy but he also doesn't take any shit and expects a lot out of his men. That Guy is immediately shit canned. Stacks and stacks of school certificates, pay stubs and other paperwork are found in That Guy's desk drawer that never got actioned. The new commander tasks me with That Guy's workload and I get caught up after three weeks. I've never seen Soldiers so happy: one guy walked into the CP with a pay stub for $1500 in back pay and I would have thought he had won the lottery by how excited he was. In less than a month, I've made our poor unit from Detroit into thousandaires. Promotion points are finally updated for everyone that went to schools during mobilization or completed correspondence courses while we've been over here. Despite not knowing a single thing about IT work, I repair the two broken MWR laptops and re-image all 6 to have all the programs the guys want to use to communicate with their families. Instead of a bunch of people waiting to use 3 laptops, there is now usually no waiting for one of the six computers. In contrast to my work, That Guy spends the last two months of our deployment sitting in his tent all day chain smoking and playing World of Warcraft which seems like a reward instead of a punishment, but everyone agrees that is better than having him in charge of the company's paperwork.

A few days before That Guy redeploys early, we get a phone call that he mailed home a bunch of full magazines of ammunition through the Post Office which was caught while being x-rayed on the way out of country. We are all eagerly awaiting to see what sort of punishment awaits That Guy back home. My gut tells me nothing will happen, but I am hopeful.