If a society is judged by the way it treats its military veterans, then we who live in the richest nation in the world and those who lead us should be condemned for our shameful neglect and callous disregard for those who defend us.
When 15 million Johnnies came marching home from World War II, a package of benefits enacted in 1944 and signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt was waiting for them, extending assistance for education, unemployment and the purchase of a house or a business.
More than half of those who served in World War II — 8 million of the 15 million veterans of that war — signed up and had their college tuitions or technical school fees paid by Uncle Sam. They also received monthly checks to cover housing and food.
It was expensive, but for every dollar the U.S. Government spent on educational benefits for WWII veterans, the government recouped between $5 and $12 in taxes paid on the higher incomes earned by college graduates, says the Congressional Research Service.
Veterans of Korea and Vietnam got sharply limited benefits, and received only monthly checks for college education, and small checks at that: The government no longer paid for tuition.
By 1985, with an all-volunteer military and America at peace, Congress enacted an even more limited educational benefit, the Montgomery GI Bill. A young soldier now is required to request future college benefits upon enlistment, and also must agree to contribute $100 a month from his or her pay during the first year of service.
In return, upon discharge, he or she can apply through the Veterans Administration for 36 months of support for college, but the checks are capped at $1,100 a month, and in reality they average about $800.
That was little enough 23 years ago, but it was considered sufficient for troops who'd served in peacetime. But that $1,100 is worth about half of what it was in 1985 — and college expenses have risen much faster than retail prices have.
What's more, this isn't peacetime: We've been at war for the last six years, and we may remain at war for years to come. Many of today’s young veterans have served two or three or more combat tours in Afghanistan and/or Iraq. Some of them arrive on campus missing an arm or a leg, or suffering from brain injuries or PTSD.
They want to get on with their lives and build a better future by getting the college education that they weren’t ready for, or that their families couldn’t afford, when they finished high school.
Sen. James Webb, D-Virginia, a Vietnam veteran, has been doggedly pursuing passage of a new GI Bill aimed at helping these new wartime veterans get that education by giving them much the same educational benefits that were extended to their grandfathers after WWII.
Under his bill, which has attracted three dozen other sponsors, the government would resume paying full college tuition for these veterans for a period linked to their times in uniform, but for no more than 36 months or four academic years. Every eligible college veteran also would receive a check for $1,000 a month to help cover living expenses.
This would cost the government about $2 billion a year, which is about what we're presently spending every 36 hours in Iraq.
President George W. Bush and the Pentagon oppose any such improvement of this miserly benefit for our young veterans. Why? The president says it would cost too much and be too hard to administer, and he's threatened to veto Webb's bill if it ever passes.
The Pentagon says that if you offer more realistic college benefits, too many troops might decide to leave at the end of their enlistments and take advantage of it. And that, they say, would only make it even harder to find and enlist enough recruits to man our wars.
Those arguments against doing the right thing for college veterans are, in the case of our “wartime president,” about what I’ve come to expect of a man whose support for our troops has never extended past strutting through the latest photo op on a military base or an aircraft carrier.
The argument of the Pentagon bean counters — who in the best tradition of former Vietnam-era defense secretary Robert Strange McNamara know the cost of everything and the value of nothing — may be accurate.
However, it is cruel, callous and uncaring in the extreme not to give our troops any hope of a life beyond endless deployments for fear that they might opt for an education over the simple joys of killing and dying far from home.
Three former presidents, a dozen U.S. senators including Webb, several Supreme Court justices, 36 Nobel Prize recipients, several university presidents and millions of American veterans got a leg up from previous GI Bills.
We owe our newest combat veterans no less. Write, call or e-mail your senators and your representative in Congress and ask for their votes in favor of Jim Webb’s new GI Bill. If George W. Bush vetoes so modest a gesture of gratitude to the young veterans who've given so much in the wars of his making, then we can add hypocrisy and shame to long list of sins that are the hallmarks of his presidency.