WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of 83 House lawmakers are blasting a Defense Department plan to change rules on troops transferring their GI Bill benefits to dependents, calling it unfair and devastating for military morale.

“Once a service member meets the requirements for transferring Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to an eligible family member, we must uphold our end of the commitment,” the group stated in a letter to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis last week. “This change in policy is unacceptable, and we call upon you to swiftly reverse this decision.”

At issue are plans in place for next year that would block servicemembers who have been in the ranks for more than 16 years from transferring their GI Bill benefits to dependents. Pentagon officials said the move is being made “to more closely align the transferability benefit with its purpose as a recruiting and retention incentive.”

Currently, troops with at least six years of service may transfer their education benefits to a spouse or child, provided they agree to serve in the military for four more years. The value of the benefits can total tens on thousands of dollars in tuition, housing stipends and related education costs.

Defense Department officials also announced that effective immediately, troops who cannot fulfill the additional four-year requirement because of issues such as mandatory retirement rules or medical issues will also not be allowed to transfer their benefits.

Veterans groups have expressed dismay over the changes, which could severely limit the benefits value to military families. Last week, IAVA CEO Paul Rieckhoff warned that the new limitations on the benefits “hurt our readiness, hurt our recruitment, hurt morale, and are bad for military families.”

“Again, bean counters in Washington are trying to save pennies by chipping away at the most successful earned benefit in American history.”

The American Legion in a statement said they were upset the change was made without significant consultation with outside military advocates. “This is a bad policy and our veterans deserve better.”

The bipartisan group of representatives — which includes multiple members of the House Armed Services and Veterans’ Affairs committees — echoed that frustration.

“Revoking transferability benefits breaks (our) commitment with our most dedicated and seasoned service members,” they wrote.

“Eliminating the ability to transfer Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to family members after honorably completing 16 years of service sends a exactly the wrong message to those who have chosen the military as their long-term career, and sets a dangerous precedent for the removal of other critical benefits as members approach military retirement.”

The lawmakers demanded department leaders return to the original rules. The group has not yet publicly discussed legislation to force Pentagon officials to make the change.

The effort was spearheaded by Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn. In a statement, he said that “it should be (troops’) right to pass that hard-earned benefit over to a close family member such a child or a spouse.”

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, more than $20 billion in education benefits has been distributed to more than 773,000 veterans, troops and family members since the Post-9/11 GI Bill was implemented in 2009.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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