Veterans

Veterans Using GI Bill May Escape Housing Allowance Cut in Budget

Military.com

 (Military.com)

Veterans in school may avoid a reduction in their monthly housing stipend, but not so the active-duty force.

Veterans going to school under the Post-9/11 GI Bill will not see their monthly housing stipends reduced next year under the defense budget approved Wednesday by the Senate and House armed services committees.

A provision inserted into the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act by the House Veterans Affairs Committee exempts the veterans from the 1 percent reduction in housing allowance that active-duty service members are in line to receive next year.

Steve Gonzalez, assistant director for The American Legion's veterans' employment and education division, said that's good news for veterans, but questions lawmakers' willingness to create separate housing allowances.

"We didn't want any cuts, not by any means, impacting veterans or service members," he said on Thursday.

He said the Legion put out word to all its state organizations to apply pressure to kill the proposal to reduce the military's Basic Allowance for Housing. Unfortunately, they were only partly successful. He credited the House Veterans Affairs Committee with opposing the cut to student veterans.

The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee did not oppose the cuts on the student vets, he said, and there was no serious opposition to imposing the reductions on the active-duty force.

"We also find it odd that if [reducing] BAH is such a sticking point to certain members of Congress, it's hard to believe that you can protect one side and not another," Gonzalez said.

Veterans in school under the Post 9/11 GI Bill receive monthly housing allowances that are tied to the Defense Department's Basic Allowance for Housing schedule, or BAH. Specifically, the amount is based on the BAH rate for an E-5 with dependents and changes annually -- up or down -- in accordance with housing costs across the country.

Because housing costs vary from place to place, the allowances do, as well.

For example, the current BAH for an E-5 with dependents at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, is $1,560. For an E-5 assigned to the Pentagon, the allowance is $2,175, according to the DoD's calculator.

The BAH reduction currently scheduled for service members next year would mean a loss of about $187 next year for an E-5 stationed at Fort Sam Houston, and about $261 for an E-5 assigned to the Pentagon.

Though the amounts are relatively small, the collective savings to the Pentagon will be in the millions of dollars.

The Defense Department originally asked for a 5 percent reduction to BAH over three years, but lawmakers backed off on that against pressure from veterans groups and military associations that lobby on behalf of the active duty.

Joe Davis, national spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said the Pentagon will continue to push for BAH reductions.

"They will get it, but it'll be 1 percent this year, then 1 percent next year and 1 percent after that. ... Eventually, they'll get their 5 percent," he said.

Gonzalez also criticized lawmakers for including the BAH reductions in the budget before receiving the findings of the Military Compensation and Retirement Commission. The commission, established by Congress, is to present its final report in February.

The commission spent the last year consulting with benefits experts and meeting with veterans and service members in town hall forums across the country in order to develop recommendations for changes to pay and benefits.

"If we're so worried about wasting money, aren't we doing [that] if we're flying people around on taxpayer dollars to get information but then not using it?" he asked. "If the intention was to make cuts all along, without being informed by the commission, then Congress should have made them more than a year ago," he said.

"Let's not play these games," Gonzalez said.

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com.