Senator, vets talk benefits

Thom Larkin | Daily TidingsSen. Ron Wyden, center, answers questions Wednesday from Oregon military members at Southern Oregon University.

Sen. Ron Wyden met Wednesday with student veterans at Southern Oregon University to tout an improved GI bill he is co-sponsoring that would raise education benefits for veterans. Updates are needed, students said, but some were concerned that the changes won't go far enough.

"Everything being proposed is great," said Mark Belcastro, a junior at SOU and officer candidate for the National Guard. "But they need to employ some sort of tuition remission or tuition waiver for veterans coming back."

Belcastro is cramming additional classes into his schedule, taking an exra half-year of classes each year to graduate as soon as possible and go on active duty. But all those extra classes aren't covered by his $4,500 yearly tuition assistance and $1,100 monthly allowance.

"I'm digging myself into a hole," he said, estimating he will graduate with $10,000 of debt.

The new GI bill, the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act, is designed to equalize benefits to all military members who have served at least three months of active duty since Sept. 11, 2001, whether they are full-time members or serve in the reserves or National Guard, Wyden said. National Guard and reserve members currently receive fewer benefits than full-time servicemen.

"The legislation raises benefits for everybody, but the heart of this is to modernize this law so that soldiers who share the same foxhole for the same length of time get the same benefits," Wyden said. "We've had such an enormous sacrifice from our Guard and our reserves."

SOU has 104 veterans taking classes and receiving benefits. About 20 of them attended the meeting with Wyden.

Student veteran Matt Pettinger said he hoped the reforms weren't just a campaign issue, but would continue to be studied after the November election.

"They have to be done right, and unfortunately the federal government likes to throw money at things and hope it gets better," he said.

Although Pettinger said the biggest single issue should be parity of benefits across all branches of the military, he also said the employment protection program needed improvements.

Pettinger served in the Marine Corps until 2000, when he transferred to the reserves and started his own construction company. When he was deployed to Iraq in 2003 with the reserves and to Kosovo in 2005 with the California National Guard, he was compensated $5,000 each time, the standard allotment to a small business for the loss of an employee.

But as a small business owner, that amount did not nearly cover his losses, Pettinger said.

The veterans also discussed tuition assistance for graduate-level work and improved health care and counseling support for students.

Belcastro said he was glad Wyden visited to get first-hand information from veterans who would benefit from the bill.

"It's good that he's wanting to come meet with us," he said.

The bill is currently undergoing hearings in the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs.

Staff writer can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or .

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