WASHINGTON – As the Chairs of the Senate and House Veterans’ Affairs Committees today unveiled compromise legislation to reform the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and improve veterans’ benefits, they announced that the legislation will include a bipartisan provision authored by Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley to expand tuition benefits for spouses of service members who die in the line of the duty.
The legislation, titled the Spouses of Heroes Education Act, was introduced in 2013 with bipartisan sponsorship from Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV).
“Losing a husband or a wife in war is a profound loss and a huge sacrifice made on behalf of our nation,” said Merkley. “We should do everything in our power to ensure that Americans whose spouses are killed in the line of duty get a fair shot to rebuild their lives and provide for their children. Expanding the Fry Scholarship will put higher education within reach of more spouses who are supporting their families while they go back to school. I urge my colleagues in the House and Senate to pass this legislation and get it to the President’s desk without delay.”
The broader legislation unveiled today is a bipartisan, bicameral compromise between the Senate and the House after competing bills passed in each chamber last month. It could pass in both chambers as early as this week. Senator Merkley was one of five original cosponsors of the bipartisan Veterans’ Access to Care through Choice, Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014, the Senate bill that formed the basis for the compromise reached today.
An Oregon veteran named Robert Thornhill contacted Senator Merkley about the idea of expanding educational benefits. Thornhill’s idea became the legislation that is now incorporated into the broader bill.
Currently, spouses of fallen service members are only eligible to receive federal education benefits under the Survivors’ and Dependents’ Education Assistance Program. This program provides an allowance of up to $936 per month, but it often does not cover the full cost of tuition and fees. The Spouses of Heroes Education Act amends the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill to expand the Fry Scholarship, which provides full in-state tuition and fees to children of service members who have died in the line of duty. This change would allow spouses to receive the full cost of public, in-state undergraduate tuition and fees, plus a monthly living stipend and book allowance.
The Merkley-Heller bill has been endorsed by the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA), the National Guard Association of the United States (NGAUS), the Vietnam Veterans of America, the Air Force Sergeants Association, the Military Order of the Purple Heart (MOPH), the American Legion, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), AMVETS, and the Student Veterans of America.