The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that veterans with overlapping military service periods can use the benefits they earned from two different GI bills. 

Lawyers representing the Army veteran who brought the case, James Rudisill, said the decision could impact as many as 1.7 million veterans and allow them to receive education benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs under the Montgomery and Post-9/11 GI bills.

“Fundamentally, this ruling applies to veterans who served six years or more. A continuous six-year enlistment or six years and then four years or whatever the case may be – as long as it aggregates up to six years total,” said Tim McHugh, one of the lawyers representing Rudisill’s case. “As long as you didn’t get a dishonorable discharge or something like that, you should get both benefits.”

The court’s decision was 7-2 with two of the court’s more conservative judges disagreeing with the ruling.

In her ruling, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson cited the so-called “pro-veteran canon,” a legal interpretation that instructs courts to favor the rights and benefits of veterans when interpreting ambiguity in federal law.

“The bottom line is this: Veterans who separately accrue benefits under both the Montgomery and Post-9/11 GI Bills are entitled to both benefits,” Justice Jackson wrote in the court’s final opinion for Rudisill. “If the statute were ambiguous, the pro-veteran canon would favor Rudisill, but the statute is clear, so we resolve this case based on statutory text alone.”

Rudisill enlisted in 2000 but bounced in and out of the military over the next decade. He served a total of eight years over three separate active duty hitches. He deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, where he saw combat and suffered multiple injuries. Rudisill became a captain before he separated in 2011 and earned several medals and commendations, including a Bronze Star. His service earned him benefits from two GI bills: the Montgomery GI Bill which covers military service between 1985 and 2030 and the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act which covers service for those who joined after September 11, 2001. 

Rudisill used the Montogomery benefits to help pay for 25 months and 14 days of his undergraduate degree before rejoining the Army in 2007 for a third tour. He intended to use the Post-9/11 bill for his graduate degree and become a chaplain in the Army. 

Rudisill believed he was entitled to 36 months of Post-9/11 benefits based on his second and third periods of service, though he expected to use just 22 months of it due to the VA’s 48-month aggregate benefits cap. He soon found out that he was only eligible for 10 months and 16 days of Post-9/11 benefits — the length of his unused Montgomery benefits — due to a provision in the Post-9/11 Bill, referred to as Section 3322. Rudisill filed a notice of disagreement with the VA, which denied his claim.

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With the Supreme Court’s latest ruling, veterans will be able to use both bills for their education. Rudisill however, is now too old to reenlist but said in a statement that he is grateful to help future service members receive benefits they were “promised after their service to our country.”

Kate Kuzminski, director of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington D.C. think tank’s military program said the number of impacted veterans may be smaller than the 1.7 million figure, noting that the case was centered around a lost opportunity instead of veterans who were actually forced to use one GI bill benefits in lieu of another.

“I don’t know if there will be a push to kind of recoup the difference for people who were told that they had to continue on the Montgomery GI Bill before they could use their Post-911,” Kuzminski said. “Now that the law has changed, theoretically, [the VA] would have to take a look because they need to know how much they need to budget for if there is some sort of follow up for anyone who came after.”

Supreme Court sides with Army veteran in overlapping GI Bill benefits case
James Rudisill and a fellow soldier on deployment. Photo courtesy of Rudisill’s lawyers.

McHugh said that the firm has heard from hundreds of veterans who were forced to use post-9/11 GI bill benefits over Montgomery bill benefits, or vice versa, including several veterans that the firm now represents. He believes the number is growing and could be closer to two million veterans at this point.

“I think Congress should keep an eye on how the VA implements this,” McHugh added. “If there is any sort of lack of statutory authority for the VA to retroactively do right by these folks – who they never told were being denied benefits – then how would they know to challenge anything?”

The Montgomery bill gives veterans who served two to three continuous years $36,000 for their studies, a “limited stipend” that “ordinarily does not pay the full costs of a veteran’s education,” according to the court’s opinion. The Post-9/11 bill, however, gives veterans who served three years “enhanced educational assistance benefits” which translates to the “actual net cost” of state tuition, and a stipend for extra costs like housing, books, and supplies.

The decision

A federal circuit court had previously decided that Rudisill had made an “election” for the 36-month limit. When the case made it to the Supreme Court, the dispute came down to the definition of “coordination” or election of veteran benefits.

The dissenting judges, Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, argued that a veteran’s “coordination” of their benefits is required because they are limited in using the two GI bills concurrently.

When denying Rudisill’s benefits, the VA pointed to section 3322 which was enacted by Congress and “provides that a servicemember meeting the criteria for both GI bills can elect to swap Montgomery benefits for the more generous Post-9/11 benefits, up to a total of 36 months of benefits,” according to the Supreme Court. 

“If you served during the Gulf War, do four years then earn the Montgomery GI Bill, and then get out and you’re out from ‘95 to 2001 but then 9/11 happens and you reenlist – I think it makes perfect sense that those are very different periods, different wars, different everything,” McHugh said. “Of course, Congress would want you to get two benefits. But under the VA’s view, you would have to give that up.”

However, the court’s majority argued that the provision addressing veterans with more than one entitlement “does not require, or even mention, coordination” but rather “coordination of entitlement.” 

“Rudisill has no need to coordinate any entitlement: He is already entitled to two separate benefits,” the court said. The justices also said that the provision in question aims to prevent double dipping which Rudisill is not doing by using his GI bill benefits separately.

Kuzminski said the dissenting opinion by two of the court’s more conservative justices wasn’t surprising when it comes to balancing veteran’s issues with costs like the value of military service and providing service members with different social safety nets. While new for the Supreme Court, those philosophical questions have played out in law and policy, she said.

“There’s been a gradual shift over time in the perception of what types of health care benefits are provided to service members. Back towards the origins of the VA, it was very much clear service-connected, you were an amputee from an injury you sustained in war,” she said. “As we evolved over time and particularly post-Gulf war, it was at times difficult to separate what is service-connected from what is not.”

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