Don't Penalize Service Members Who Don't Have Kids. Let Them Bank Their GI Bill Benefits

Pamphlets regarding educational benefits are displayed
Pamphlets regarding educational benefits are displayed as part of the 2018 Fairchild Air Force Base Education Fair at Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington, on Oct. 18, 2018. (U.S. Air Force photo/ Airman 1st Class Lawrence Sena)

The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to for consideration.

Andrea N. Goldstein is a Navy reservist who previously served on active duty. She is a former senior policy adviser on the House Veterans Affairs Committee. She is a member of the Truman National Security Project, Council on Foreign Relations and a Pat Tillman Scholar.

The military is missing out on a cost-effective way to keep more mid-career personnel in the ranks who don't have a spouse or children, and unfairly penalizing those who have -- whether by choice or circumstance -- prioritized mission ahead of family.

The Post 9/11 GI Bill is a benefit that service members and veterans are entitled to that has proven to be one of the most effective tools for helping those vets build comfortable middle-class lives. One key feature is that service members may transfer the benefit, with additional service obligation, to their dependents.

That option is not available if you're single and/or don't have kids. If you get married and/or have children after you leave the military, even if you served more than the required time for transferability, you can't transfer your GI Bill, which is already bought and paid for by your service.

Right now, a service member can only transfer their GI Bill to any dependents they currently have after serving for at least six years, agreeing in turn to serve for an additional four years (either on active duty or as a drilling reservist in the Selected Reserve). Those dependents must be enrolled in an administrative system at transition.

Service members and veterans should be able to transfer the GI Bill to dependents they don't yet have, creating an additional retention incentive and eliminating an unfair policy. This is currently not permitted, and unfairly penalizes people who prioritized mission over family, didn't happen to meet the right person (often because of their service), struggled with infertility or pregnancy loss, or other factors that might lead to meeting a partner or having children later in life, such as caring for an aging or sick parent.

I've been in the Navy for 13 years. I'm in my mid-30s, not married and don't have children. I do hope to get married and become a parent, it just hasn't worked out for me yet. Several people who I commissioned with who started families several years ago have already served their obligated time and transferred their GI bill to their dependents.

I have seven years until I'm Reserve retirement-eligible. I love the Navy, but I have a fantastic civilian career and life, and I reconsider continuing service in the Reserves often. What keeps me in is the pride of service and camaraderie. This is not enough for many good service members who have other obligations and passions. If the Navy enabled me to obligate more time to be able to transfer my educational benefits to future dependents, I wouldn't hesitate. I'd sign the obligation immediately.

Currently, you can't opt to transfer your GI Bill to future dependents even if you served for 20 years and retired out of the service, nor if you were medically retired.

It's unfair, wrong and punishes people who prioritized the mission over family, or didn't meet their person yet. For those who reach mandatory retirement and "run out of clock" to obligate service, it takes an option for their future plans off the table. Finally, while it's hard to prove, the transferability issue may disproportionately impact women, who have more variables to consider in balancing operational and family planning choices.

Expanding transferability would be a net positive for both the service members and the military services themselves. It would improve the economic situation of the service member or veteran, particularly if they are not saddled with the financial obligation of finding a way to pay for their child's education. The military would have a retention tool to offer at a critical midpoint (6-10 years) when many talented people leave.

Critics of this approach might say that it's too expensive or that the GI Bill is a transition tool for veterans. On the first point, the GI Bill is already bought and paid for with a minimum requirement of time in military service. On the second, the GI Bill supports recruitment, retention and transition goals. Specifically on the point of transition, it is also in the interest of the financial security of the veteran. If it supports the veteran's family, helping to provide financial opportunity for a spouse or reducing the burden of paying for children's college, then it helps the veteran have a thriving post-military life.

There are two key avenues to fix it -- one, the Department of Defense (DoD) could do on its own, while the second requires Congress to act. First, the DoD and military components should examine the possibility of changing policies that allow service members to obligate service that starts the "clock" for transferability earlier, regardless of whether the service member is married or has children yet. While this would still not fix a veteran's ability to transfer their GI Bill to future dependents, it would enable service members who marry or have children later on, but while still serving, to still "opt-in." It creates a powerful retention incentive and communicates to single service members that they are considered and valued, and doesn't unfairly penalize service members who start families later by starting their "clock" later.

Second, Congress should enact a law that enables any service member or veteran who was medically retired, or opted in to obligated service as discussed in the paragraph above, to be able to transfer their GI Bill to any future dependents, regardless of when they marry or have children. Veterans who retired or separated five years or fewer prior to the enactment of the law, and served for at least 15 years, should also be eligible.

These changes would not only be the fair thing to do, but would improve retention for service members and improve opportunities for veterans and their families, and is already bought and paid for by the veteran's service.

The views represented here are the author's own, and not those of the Department of Defense or Department of the Navy.

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