Like many of his generation, my father owes his education and, indeed his entire career to the GI Bill offered to returning veterans after WWII. He came from working class immigrant stock and would never have been able to afford college during the 40s without the sort of assistance provided by the bill. As it was, he was able to attend a small (tiny, really) private college in Ohio, go on to graduate school at Cornell and eventually to a successful career in Food Technology with General Foods. He and my mother, a librarian, provided my sister and I with a comfortable middle-class life and solid educational opportunities in our time. The result of the WWII GI Bill wasn’t just that people like my dad got a college education, but that education and those of his fellow veterans fueled the economic and social boom years of the 50s and 60s, for the entire country.
As Wesley Clark and Jon Soltz write in today’s LA Times:
The original GI Bill transformed American history, providing education for returning soldiers. The GI Bill not only recognized our nation’s moral duty for the enormous sacrifices of our World War II veterans, but it helped create America’s middle class and spurred decades of economic growth for our country. Economists estimate that the original bill returned anywhere between $5 and $13 for every dollar we spent on it.
And as noted in a NPR Morning Edition article today:
Those days are long gone. The current version of the GI Bill picks up 70 percent of the tab at a public college and about 30 percent of the costs at most private colleges. That means that while veterans of WWII could attend Harvard University courtesy of the government, veterans of the Iraq war have to cover nearly three years of tuition at such a school themselves.
The NPR story relates the experience of Todd Bowers, now director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association (IAVA). He had managed to finish one semester at prestigious George Washington University prior to being called up for a second tour in Iraq, where he narrowly survived a sniper’s bullet.
After Bowers came home, he says, he was determined to finish his studies at George Washington, with the GI Bill’s help. But, “I started to fall into a tremendous amount of debt. I was taking out incredible student loans trying to keep up with the tuition costs, and the GI Bill wasn’t picking up much more than a few of my books.”
Senator Jim Webb’s proposed bill, which currently has 52 supporters in the Senate, would offer a reasonable and modest update to the GI Bill. It wouldn’t offer veterans a free ride to private colleges like my father got, but it would pay for them to attend the best State colleges and offer incentives to private schools. It would also honor returning veterans for their service and sacrifice in a meaningful and tangible fashion.
The bill would also decrease the disparity between benefits offered to active duty soldiers and those offered to members of the National Guard.
“If I serve 12 months, one single tour in Iraq, I will get 12 months worth of benefits of what the active duty receives,” Bowers explains. “If I serve three tours of 12 months for a total of 36 months, I still only receive 12 months of benefits.”
52 votes is not a veto-proof margin in the Senate but why would anyone veto such a wonderful bill? Or why would someone like John McCain, who has made himself out to be the great defender and supporter of our military, fail to adamantly support and battle for this bill? Kudos to NPR for at least mentioning McCain’s pusilanimous reluctance to step up:
His office did not respond to calls for this report. Several weeks ago, while on the road, McCain said, “It seems to me that it’s a good thing to do, but I haven’t examined the bill with the care … that it needs. … But we obviously need to do something along those lines.”
Like, oh, maybe later. After he gets elected. Maybe.
It turns out that the White House and the Pentagon are opposed to the GI Bill. Why? The answer is not only creepy beyond belief, but it’s incredibly insulting to the very military that Republicans are always claiming to support:
The Pentagon, however, says it is concerned that it will damage retention — that the extensive benefits would encourage people to leave the military to go to college.
Sen. Webb disagrees.
“If you have a meaningful GI Bill, you’re going to expand the potential pool of people who will come into the military. … We want all elements of our society to be involved in the military when we have situations like Iraq,” he says. “And it’s only when the mothers of Harvard wake up and worry about their son or daughter that we are going to have a hedge against adventurism.”
Clark and Soltz agree:
First, it is morally reprehensible to fix the system so that civilian life is unappealing to service members, in an attempt to force them to re-up. Education assistance is not a handout, it is a sacred promise that we have made for generations in return for service.
Second, falling military recruitment numbers are just as serious as retention problems. To send the message that this nation will not help you make the most of your life will dissuade a large number of our best and brightest from choosing military service over other career options.
Obama and Clinton are both supporters of the bill. I hope they both take time off from slapping one another and demand accountability from John McCain. No more weaseling. No more “I haven’t had time to look at the bill”. That’s why you have a staff, McCain. If you’re too busy trying to convince us that you support the troops at the same time you refuse to support such a reasonable and far-reaching opportunity, you’re just a fraud.
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