Lawmakers push to let veterans use GI benefits for business, not college

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Members of Congress plan to put forward legislation that would allow veterans to use their benefits under the GI Bill to start businesses instead of attending college.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.), a member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, is drafting legislation that would direct the Veterans Affairs secretary to establish a program that would allow qualified veterans to start or buy a business.

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), a member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, will introduce companion legislation in the Senate.

The tweak to the GI Bill, which will be attached to the Veterans Entrepreneurial Transition Business Benefit Act of 2015, has been a top priority of the American Legion for several years. The idea also has the backing of other military service organizations, including Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

One of the most prominent champions of the cause is Charles “Lynn” Lowder, a retired Marine Corps major who is a Silver Star recipient and a Vietnam War veteran.

Lowder is a retired CEO who says he plans to devote the “fourth quarter” of his life to helping veterans. He said he came up with a similar idea for GI Bill benefits when he met Shaun Garry, a former soldier..

Garry survived five roadside bomb attacks in Iraq and suffered from traumatic brain injury. At the time he met Lowder, the Purple Heart recipient was suffering from depression and was in debt.

Lowder and restaurateur Dale Eisenberg teamed up to help Garry turn his life around by advising him on how to run a restaurant and helping him become the owner of one of Eisenberg’s franchises.

“We feel every veteran ought to have a shot if they want to be in business for themselves,” Lowder told The Hill.

Lowder said only a little more than half of veterans — 54 percent — are actually using their GI Bill benefits, which could amount to as much as $260,000 for four years at a private college or university.

Veterans who aren’t interested in attending college, or aren’t planning to transfer their benefits to dependents down the road, should be able to take that money and start a small business, he said.

“The reality of it is … the young enlisted people, the ones that do the heavy lifting in combat and the most sacrificing, are shut out,” Lowder said. “The reason they’re shut out is they have no access to capital. So we think that needs to be corrected.”

The idea has precedence, as it is similar to a law that was allowed to expire: The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944.

That law allowed veterans who wanted to buy a farm, home or business property to have their loans backed by up to $2,000 — or $26,000 in today’s dollars.

Fortenberry’s bill would create a three-year pilot program for 100 eligible veterans each fiscal year to be able to use up to three years of educational benefits to start or purchase a qualified business.

To be eligible for the program, veterans would have had to serve three years of full-time active duty or 24 months of active duty if they left for a service related disability.

Veterans would also have to apply for the program no more than 15 years after leaving service.

Recipients would have to attend an entrepreneurship readiness program approved by the VA secretary and have their business plans approved.

The potential cost of the legislation has not yet been scored. The VA spent $11 billion for a million veterans to attend college in 2012, according to a 2013 Government Accountability Office study.

 Advocates of the GI Bill amendment point out that the Pentagon spent $1.4 billion on unemployment for former military personnel in 2013, and say the pilot program would likely lower those costs.

Retired Marine Lt. Col. Joe Plenzler, a board member for the pro-bono group 1 Vet at a Time who is working with Lowder to bring the plan to fruition, said it could go a long way toward tackling veteran unemployment and suicide.

Plenzler said about 57,000 veterans today are homeless, and an estimated 22 veterans per day take their own lives.

“One million veterans are coming off of active duty in the next five years,” Plenzler said. “The last thing that goes through a veteran’s mind before they pull the trigger — it’s hope.”

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