Between serving in Iraq and dealing with one crisis after another at home, the California National Guard has been busy. Now, those same troops are wondering why California is the only state that offers no money to help Guard members get an education.
Staff Sgt. Jill Jamgochian has been in the National Guard for eight years. While she was in the Ohio Guard she got her undergraduate degree with substantial help from the state. She's in the California Guard now, but she's quitting so she can get her master's degree.
"California doesn't extend education benefits to its National Guardsmen and women, so it doesn't make financial sense for me to remain in the Guard," Jamgochian says. "It's not that I don't like the Guard; it's not that I don't like the military. I love the Guard and I wish I could stay in."
According to Lt. Col. Michael Wells, head of government affairs for the California Guard, Jamgochian is not alone among California's 21,000 Guard members.
"We lose over 25 percent of our force every year," Wells says. "Now you tell me what corporation in America could sustain a 25 percent loss of its work force every year and maintain a productive force?"
'Morally Invested Money'
California has the second-largest Guard force in the nation, just behind Texas. Wells says he constantly encounters California Guard members who are confronting choices about how to get an education. Educational benefits offered by the Nevada or Arizona National Guard are a tempting alternative.
Wells points out that in addition to its considerable contribution to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the California Guard has been called up three times this year alone to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border and to fight fires. California Guard members are in Texas right now helping with the aftermath of Hurricane Ike.
The state's Guard has asked for $3.3 million to start offering educational benefits. "That amount of money in a $100 billion dollar budget is virtually infinitesimal," Republican state Sen. Mark Wyland says. "And the impact it would have on the Guard itself is enormous." Wyland is chairman of the state Senate Veterans Affairs committee.
And even though Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger supports it, this is not strictly a Republican measure. There is support for it on both sides of the aisle.
"It's a correctly invested, morally invested money, so giving the National Guard educational benefits should be one of our top priorities," Democratic state Sen. Lou Correa says.
Bias Or Deficit?
Clearly educational benefits are not a priority, which leads some observers to say that the senior Democratic leaders of both houses have an anti-military bias.
"You have some people who are afraid of losing their liberal California voter base," Jamgochian says. "They don't want to be seen as supporting the war effort."
But Barbara O'Connor, who teaches politics and media at Sacramento State University, says that's not the case.
"I don't think it's an overt bias," she says. "They're certainly not advocates of the position the U.S. has taken in Iraq and they've made that very clear. But I don't think that filters over into the treatment of the National Guard, who they value."
Yet Democratic leaders have argued that college grants in California should be based on need and Guard members should not receive special status based on their service.
In any case, the bill to provide benefits to the California Guard appears doomed this year as the state struggles to make up a huge deficit. Supporters vow to bring it back until it passes.