By Kristen M. Daum
WASHINGTON -- Kevin Grafeld, of Levittown, joined the U.S. Marines hoping that when he got out he would be able to attend college, get a master's degree and teach history.
Now he is studying part-time at Nassau Community College and working at a Coram paintball range, because his GI Bill benefits aren't nearly enough to fund his educational dreams.
Grafeld, who served two tours in Iraq, said the $875 per month he receives as a 3/4-time student is not enough to cover "books, calculators, paper, pens, all the things you need to go to school."
"They were rather good at saying, 'Join the Marines and get an education, you'll have an opportunity to go to college,'" said Grafeld, 23, whose five-year enlistment ended in December. "I was 18 and a little naive."
Grafeld is just one example of the many Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who are finding that the GI Bill enacted 64 years ago to educate veterans returning from World War II doesn't cover the cost of a degree at many colleges, both private and public.
GI education benefits are determined solely by the length and type of military duty. A veteran who serves three continuous years on active duty would receive $1,101 each month, which can be used toward tuition, room and board or other fees. Veterans have the option to pay $600 out-of-pocket to increase their monthly benefits to $1,251.
The wide disparities between the benefits and college costs have spurred more than a dozen reform proposals on Capitol Hill, where leaders hope to resolve the issue by the end of the year.
The Pentagon, however, opposes the measures to increase educational stipends, arguing that if increased GI Bill benefits make college affordable to more servicemembers, that will make it harder to convince them to re-enlist.
However, Pentagon officials have reacted favorably to one bill in Congress that would provide the highest level of educational benefits to individuals who remain in the service for more than 12 years.
Many agree, though, that current GI benefits don't go very far for many of today's veterans, many of whom enlist assuming their college education will be paid for.
Virginia Democratic Sen. Jim Webb's Post-9/11 GI Bill - the measure with the greatest support in Congress - would give veterans four years of college tuition up to the cost of the most expensive in-state public university, plus a monthly room-and-board stipend based on local cost of living expenses.
The bill, which would provide up to $27,360 a year on Long Island for tuition, fees, housing and books, is expected to go before the House and Senate as early as this month.
Veterans groups say the issue is particularly acute in New York. The state has the fourth-largest veteran population nationwide - with the majority residing in Nassau and Suffolk counties.
David Kagan, of Tappan, N.Y., enlisted in the Army at age 18, and served more than three years with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, including a stint in Iraq in 2003.
He said he assumed all along that GI benefits would pay for his education, and when he got out he enrolled in Columbia University in Manhattan as an American Studies major. Kagan, 25, anticipated some debt, given the annual tuition of $40,400. But he never imagined he'd be where he is now - $50,000 in debt with one year of school left.
Aaron Alfson, a 27-year-old political science junior at Columbia, enlisted in the Air Force, hoping to rely on GI benefits for his college education. But the Florida native's monthly checks of $1,251 will barely add up to even one year's tuition at Columbia.
"The GI bill doesn't even begin to cover the total cost of attendance," Alfson said.
Nassau County Veterans Services director Edward Aulman said he's worked with more than two dozen Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to help them find ways to stretch their benefits. He said veterans today often don't realize until they return that their GI benefits won't cover tuition costs at major universities.
Among a number of proposals on Capitol Hill to increase veterans' educational benefits is the "Returning Soldiers' GI Bill of Rights," sponsored by Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford). Like other proposals, King's bill includes full tuition and housing expenses.
"My purpose is to put a full-court press on this," King said. "The point is to just get it out there so we can have as many supporters as we can."
Yet the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs continue to resist the concept of higher veterans educational benefits.
The Veterans Department is concerned about how it would oversee the distribution of increased benefits, Associate Deputy Under Secretary for Policy and Program Management Keith Pedigo told a congressional committee this week.
Withington said the Pentagon would only support measures that promoted retention. "Experience and maturity are critical to our contemporary military success," he said.
Pentagon officials have reacted favorably to a bill by presumptive GOP presidential nominee John McCain. It provides the greatest benefits to individuals who serve for more than 12 years, while those who serve less than that would receive only $400 more each month than under the current benefit scheme.
But a variety of politicians and veterans say a significant increase in GI educational benefits is long overdue.
"We cannot retain those who we cannot recruit," said Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), a lead co-sponsor of Webb's Post-9/11 bill.
Aaron Alfson said "the Pentagon's argument" against such bills "doesn't hold any water" for young veterans.
"They use these educational benefits to attract enlistees, and somehow, now their position is, 'We don't actually want you to use these benefits,'" he said. "It doesn't make sense."
No reward for her service
At 17 years old, Sheila Pion thought college would be paid for if she served in the military.
So the Long Island City teenager tricked her mom into signing her enlistment papers for the Army Reserve - because she knew her mother, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, would never have been able to afford to send her to college otherwise, Pion said.
After seven years in the reserves - including a year of active duty, working with injured soldiers at a Kuwait hospital - Pion gets just $400 each month from GI benefits toward her education at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
But the money barely even covers a semester's worth of transportation in New York City, let alone help with her $7,000 annual college expenses, the 24-year-old said.
"I served my country, and now I can't get money for my education?" Pion said. "It doesn't make sense."
Staff writer Martin C. Evans contributed to this story.**
*Online subscription may be required.
** Based on Evans' interview with Kevin Grafeld, Newsday editors decided Grafeld would best localize the story to Long Island and should therefore lead the story. However, this multi-page special report was pitched, researched and the remaining information reported by Kristen M. Daum.