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Pentagon Stiffs Soldiers out of Education Benefits After 729-Day Deployment in Iraq

Members of the Minnesota National Guard returning from the longest tour of any ground combat unit in Iraq were surprised to learn that they were not eligible for the education benefits that they expected to receive under the G.I. Bill.

The Minnesota National Guard's First Brigade Combat Team of the 34th Infantry Division was deployed in Iraq for 22 months, 125 days longer than they had originally been scheduled for. This involuntary extension, a part of President Bush's "surge" strategy for the war, made the 2,600 soldiers' tour of duty the longest of any ground combat unit in Iraq. Recently, however, 1,162 of the soldiers learned that because their orders were written for 729 days instead of 730 (as the other 1,338 soldiers' orders were), they were not eligible for increased education benefits.

Under the Montgomery G.I. Bill of 1984, soldiers who serve for less than 730 days are entitled to Reserved Education Assistance program payments for as long as they are still enrolled in military service. Soldiers who serve for 730 days or more, however, have the option to pay $1,200 in exchange for a $234 per month higher payment. Perhaps more significantly, this benefit can be used for up to ten years after military service ends.

The military has claimed that a clerical error was responsible for the discrepancy and the ensuing denial of benefits, but the error has not been corrected.

"I think it was a scheme to save money, personally," said 1st Lt. Jon Anderson, one of the soldiers denied benefits. "I think it was a leadership failure by the senior Washington leadership... once again failing the soldiers."

"It's pretty much a slap in the face," Anderson said.

Both of Minnesota's senators and six of its representatives have asked the Secretary of the Army to investigate.