Benefits for children live on after soldiers fallby Art Hughes, Minnesota Public Radio
This Memorial Day, veterans can look at recent successes in boosting benefits for soldiers returning from war or killed in service. Not since the Vietnam War have Americans been so aware of the need to care for veterans and their families. Dozens of state legislatures are dusting off old laws or creating new ones especially to aid casualties of war. In Minnesota, an old benefit comes to light.
St. Paul, Minn. — The World War II-era GI Bill was a massive federal program that promised, among other things, college tuition waivers for soldiers returning from the war.
Now, with soldiers dying in Iraq and Afghanistan or returning with severe disabilities, states are recognizing the need to update their benefits for veterans and their dependents.
In the past year, the Wyoming Legislature expanded its state benefits to include college tuition waivers for spouses and children of fallen soldiers. Similar provisions are now law in Iowa, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and a dozen other states.
Anthony Hardie with the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs said not since the GI Bill of the 1940s has his state been so attentive to vets.
"At every level of government, we're seeing a marked increase in recognition that we need to be paying close attention to reintegration of our service members when they're coming back from overseas," Hardie said.
Wisconsin now offers income and property tax rebates for seriously disabled vets and the spouses of soldiers killed during military service. And for the first time, the state offers full tuition for children of fallen soldiers who go to Wisconsin public institutions. It covers education costs all the way through graduate school.
In Minnesota, the state's tuition waiver law dates back to 1943. Long stretches of time between wars in those 60 years caused the University of Minnesota to all but forget that it was obligated to offer the benefit.
Vice Provost Craig Swan said no one in his office can remember the last time they paid out what's known in state law as "war orphans" benefits.
"We had not had claims under this proposal, and so when it was brought to our attention it was immediately obvious what we should do," Swan said.
The university is expected to update its policy in June to make sure the benefits don't fall below the radar in future quiet periods.
A five-inch stack of manila folders and loose papers are neatly organized on Colleen Gardner's kitchen table. It's a paper trail that needs constant tending, so tuition is covered for her son, Travis, at Winona State University. WSU is part of the Minnesota State Universities and Colleges system, which has always honored the waiver.
"It's a lot of paperwork to keep track of," Gardner said as she thumbed through the papers.
Travis' father suffered a fatal heart attack three years ago during National Guard training in Fort Lee, Virginia. Now, Gardner's daughter, Heather, plans to attend the University of Minnesota in the fall. The university's decision to honor the tuition waiver is welcome news.
"It basically takes so much off our minds that she's able to go, and we can start thinking about it. They're basically going to walk out of school with very little debt, which is just amazing for kids these days," said Gardner.
State Rep. Lloyd Cybart, R-Apple Valley, pushed the university to update its policy. The Air Force veteran of 20 years said even he didn't know the tuition waiver was available until veterans advocates brought it to his attention.
"I have four kids myself, and I'd like to know they're going to be taken care of and get the education they should without my wife having to work four or five jobs to make that happen," said Cybart.
Fewer than 30 Minnesota college students currently claim the tuition waiver. But university officials acknowledge the number could climb as children of fallen soldiers reach college age.