WASHINGTON—A new generation of American war veterans is being born of the combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, and it is high time Congress crafted a new GI Bill with the same enhanced benefits that were provided for their grandfathers in World War II and Korea, and for their fathers and uncles who fought in Vietnam.
The original GI bill, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in June 1944, provided educational benefits to 8 million veterans. It also provided low-cost guaranteed loans for veterans to buy homes or farms, as well as medical assistance after they were discharged. Similar benefits were provided to veterans of the Korean War. In 1966 a new GI bill was passed providing the same benefits for veterans of the Vietnam War.
In the peacetime year of 1984, with an all-volunteer military emerging from the shadow of Vietnam, Congress passed a stripped-down version of veterans' benefits known as the Montgomery GI Bill Program. It was a temporary program made permanent in June 1987.
It is that program that now applies to America's new war veterans, and it provides little enough.
Only if a new enlistee signs up for the college benefit at the time of enlistment, or during boot camp, and agrees to have his pay reduced by $100 a month for his first 12 months of service, is he eligible for the education benefits—36 months of assistance at the rate of approximately $1,000 per month.
What is missing from this picture?
Well, the dependents of service members killed or disabled on active duty receive 45 months of education benefits, and that is little enough given the sacrifice their families have made.
But the 36 months of benefits for a newly returned veteran is simply not enough. Most of them have been in the military for four years or more. They are a long way from their last high school classroom and most require remedial classes, especially in math and writing skills needed to perform up to college standards.
There is no room in the 36 months of benefits for that, which means these new veterans coming up on their fourth and final year in college see their monthly checks dry up and disappear.
Jeremy Clements, a Marine veteran of service in Afghanistan and a sophomore at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, Fla., says more than half the veterans entering his school have to take the remedial classes.
"If there is a change of your major that's a big problem," Clements said. "If it's a big shift you've wasted two years of your benefits."
Jesse Bishop, an Army Ranger veteran of Afghanistan and a junior at the University of Florida in Gainesville, said the dependents of killed or disabled service members "get a semester and a half to take remedial courses before tapping into their 45 months of benefits."
Rosanna Powers is a Marine veteran of service in Kuwait and the mother of a young child whose father was killed in Iraq. Her brother also was killed in Iraq. She is a freshman at Santa Fe Community College, and says it takes the average student at all schools 40 months to complete a four-year degree.
"The Vietnam-era veterans received 44 months of educational benefits and did not have to contribute (from their military pay)," Powers said. "Benefits for wartime veterans should be different from those of peacetime veterans. This can be resolved with more educational benefits for recent veterans."
In the beginning, in 1944, the GI Bill was viewed as an investment—an investment in our future—and what an investment it proved to be. Eight million tapped educational benefits, and their impact on the colleges and on the nation's economy as they poured out into the workforce was phenomenal. The home loan guarantees for those veterans had a similar impact on the economy and society in general.
It makes no sense at all that Congress votes all the money the Defense Department asks for to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but is cheap when it comes to the young men and women who wear the uniform and risk their lives for our country.
It is high time for Congress to draft a new GI Bill for this new generation of war veterans who are just as deserving of our support as were their grandfathers and fathers in their day.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Joseph L. Galloway is the senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and co-author of the national best-seller "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young