SKOWHEGAN – T.J. Hebert enlisted in the Navy right after graduating from Lawrence High School in Fairfield in 2003.

Within a year, he married his high school sweetheart while on a two-week leave from active duty on a ship overseas. The couple had two children over six years and settled in Skowhegan in 2009, after Hebert was discharged.

Hebert always wanted to go to college after serving, but his wife was working toward her bachelor’s degree at the time and the young family needed a steady income.

He landed a job as a medical assistant at Redington-Fairview General Hospital to pay the bills, putting his education on hold for the foreseeable future.

Everything changed for Hebert, however, when the Post 9/11 GI Bill took effect in August 2009. The federal legislation redefined the scope and amount of education assistance benefits available to veterans.

He qualified for the veteran benefits and enrolled in the fall of 2010 at the University of Maine at Farmington, where his wife, Jessica, had graduated that spring.

Hebert, now 26, is studying to become a high school health teacher and plans to graduate in 2013, a goal that seemed all but impossible just a couple of years ago.

“If I didn’t have GI benefits I would have probably had to keep working, and I really don’t know if I would have gone back to school,” he said.

He is among the roughly 3,000 Mainers today who are getting education benefits through the Post 9/11 GI Bill, which pays for them to attend college, get career training or pursue other new job skills, said Robert Haley, director of the Maine State Approving Agency for Veterans Education Programs.

Haley characterized the bill, which has doubled the number of Mainers getting the education benefits compared with 2009, as the biggest step forward in supporting veterans in a long time.

Among the many changes to the older education benefit programs, the bill makes it possible for veterans to transfer benefits to dependents.

There have also been enhancements added to the bill this year tied to expanding access to higher education institutions, along with other improvements, Haley said.

“The Post 9/11 GI Bill is the most exciting thing to happen to GI education benefits, literally, in decades,” he said.

Residents in Maine are getting about $20 million per year from the program, which has provided more than $14 billion in benefits nationwide since its inception, he said.

Haley is employed by the University of Maine System, which receives federal funding to support his office, which oversees veteran education programs statewide.

Although other federal programs were already giving veterans education assistance, the bill allows Hebert to attend classes full time, avoid accruing college debt and have money to support his family, he said.

He is getting benefits that cover all of his educational expenses, including a stipend to help pay for his family’s housing. Hebert is among the group that qualifies for 100 percent of the federal assistance, with the percentage dropping based on years of active military duty and other factors.

The education benefits gave Hebert an alternative to remaining in the Navy or taking out loans to pay for college, both being choices that would have been difficult on his family, he said.

“I will have a decent-paying job when I graduate and will have no debt, so I can focus on paying for my kids’ college instead of worrying about my college bills,” he said. “I love the Navy and miss serving a lot, but it’s really difficult to do those things with two small children.”

Morning Sentinel Staff Writer David Robinson can be contacted at 861-9287 or at:

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