By Peter Hirschfeld, Vermont Press Bureau
BURLINGTON - Thousands of Vermont veterans will soon be eligible for new college and healthcare benefits under federal legislation set to take effect this summer.
Sen. Bernie Sanders urged past and present Vermont servicemen Monday to avail themselves of the new benefits to which they're now entitled.
"I think it is no secret that many veterans … believe the government did not keep its word to them - that promises were made to them that were not kept," Sanders said during an afternoon press event at his Church Street offices Monday.
While the education and healthcare provisions spotlighted Monday make good progress toward realizing those promises, Sanders said, they mean little unless soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines actually use them.
"One of the frustrations I have is whatever we do in Washington, it doesn't matter if people don't take advantage of it," Sanders said.
The updated GI bill, approved by Congress last year, will pay tuition expenses for any post-9/11 veteran up to the cost of the most expensive in-state school. That amounts to about $14,000 per year in Vermont, and enrolled veterans can also get up to $1,700 per month in housing allowances. Under certain circumstances, veterans can also transfer those benefits to people in their immediate family.
"Many people are going to be able to go to college virtually for free," Sanders said.
An expansion in eligibility thresholds for VA benefits also could help thousands of lower-income veterans struggling to afford healthcare. Sanders called the $350 million initiative an attempt to remedy the harm done in 2003, when the VA stopped providing healthcare for many veterans whose injuries or conditions were not service-related.
"Many of them can have incomes as low as $28,000 a year and still not get into the VA for healthcare," Sanders said. "This opens the door for those pushed out of the VA."
Jacqui Carlomagno, with the Vermont Office of Veterans Affairs, said veterans need to be their own advocates if they hope to benefit from the new perks.
"Not only is it a very generous benefit, but it also is enormously complex," Carlomagno said of the GI bill. "… Study your options, ask questions, so you can become your own expert."