When my father started to college after World War II, the GI Bill paid him $130 per month—it also paid his tuition and bought his books. When I got back from Vietnam and started to college, I also got $130, in 1970 dollars. And I had to pay my own tuition and buy my own books.
The difference can be accounted for by sheer numbers. Virtually every able-bodied man in America saw service during World War II, and these veterans would make up the Congress of the United States for decades to come. The GI Bill still existed by the Vietnam era, but Vietnam veterans were a distinct minority in the general population. They were also the least likely group you would ever find to organize, join a special interest group, or get involved in politics. They took what was offered and faded into the woodwork.
My point here is that we often think of the GI Bill as a reward for veterans from a grateful nation. Sure. But the grateful nation pays little attention without the lobbying efforts of the American Legion or the Veterans of Foreign Wars. If you look at the enrollments of these organizations you will find they dwindled drastically over the last decades as the World War II “greatest generation” became less active and the majority of Vietnam veterans declined to participate.
Which brings us to the efforts of U.S. Sen. James Webb, D-Va. Webb was a Reagan Democrat, a Vietnam veteran who served as Secretary of the Navy under Reagan. He now proposes to offer a significant upgrade to the GI Bill to reward the service of the soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The bill pays your tuition at the rate of the most expensive public university in your home state and offers a stipend and pays for other expenses. It is essentially the World War II GI Bill re-incarnated.
Who could oppose such a measure? Well, there’s the Pentagon; President George W. “I just love the troops” Bush; and Vietnam War hero and presidential candidate U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
The excuse offered by the three entities (who ought to be fighting for veterans benefits instead of opposing them) is that the educational awards are just too good. They might induce soldiers to deplete the ranks of the Armed Forces in order to go to college. It just might be that someone who does tours in Iraq might decide to go to college instead of going back.
McCain’s alternative bill offers generous benefits, but it requires you to stay in the service far longer in order to get them.
McCain, as the son of an Admiral, got a free education at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he thought so much of his opportunity he finished near the bottom of his class. Perhaps he doesn’t understand the value of a college education when you have to pay for it yourself and you don’t have a guaranteed job when you graduate.
The Congressional Budget Office predicts the Webb bill might result in a 16 percent loss of re-enlistments. But they also predict a 16 percent increase in recruitment because of the new benefits.
George Lisicki, the national commander of the VFW, said it best when he issued a statement after meeting with Bush. “People are leaving after their first enlistment because they are tired of being shot at, and their families are tired of the frequent deployments.” They aren’t leaving because of “rich” veterans benefits.
Tennessee senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker need to ask themselves: Are you on the side of the Pentagon and your presidential candidate, or are you on the side of Volunteer State veterans? To oppose giving these soldiers these benefits is to care more about cost accounting than the flesh and blood soldiers risking life and limb every day.
Last Monday we celebrated Memorial Day. It is a time to honor the veterans who lie in our nation’s cemeteries, having given their lives to protect us.
You shouldn’t leave the impression you view these graves as a large group of people to whom you don’t have to provide benefits.