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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Back to the Future: Senate Joins House in Restoring WWII-Era Veterans' GI Bill Benefits

As Memorial Day approaches, both aisles of Congress have done something quite extraordinary: joined forces to deliver on another important reintegration resource -- education benefits -- for returning troops. Robert Pear for the New York Times:

Twenty-five Republican senators broke with President Bush and voted Thursday for a major expansion of veterans’ benefits as part of a bill to finance another year of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The proposal, adopted by a vote of 75 to 22, also provides money for extended unemployment insurance benefits and other domestic programs to which Mr. Bush has objected. ...

While 25 Republicans supported the proposal, 22 opposed it. Forty-eight Democrats and two independents voted for the bipartisan measure, drafted by two Vietnam veterans, Senators Jim Webb, Democrat of Virginia, and Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska. The proposal on veterans’ benefits was approved by a veto-proof majority, with support from conservative Republican senators including Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma and John Thune of South Dakota.

The bill now goes back to the House, where its future course is somewhat uncertain. The House had endorsed a similar expansion of education benefits for veterans, but has also adopted policy measures to speed the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. The Senate rejected efforts to limit the president’s hand in Iraq.

Senators John W. Warner, Republican of Virginia, and Frank R. Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey, said they were in the Senate today because of the help they had received under an earlier G.I. Bill. Mr. Hagel said the new legislation “fulfills the commitment that America made in 1944, and has continued, to honor every generation of veterans since World War II.”

In educational interest, article(s) quoted from extensively.

Indeed, this is exactly what Congress is charged with doing. In 1956, the 84th Congress had this to say in a presidential commission report on veterans’ benefits:

The Government's obligation is to help veterans overcome special, significant handicaps incurred as a consequence of their military service. The objective should be to return veterans as nearly as possible to the status they would have achieved had they not been in military service… and maintaining them and their survivors in circumstances as favorable as those of the rest of the people. … War sacrifices should be distributed as equally as possible within our society. This is the basic function of our veterans' programs.

The GI Bill is an important element of this charge.

IAVA's Paul Rieckhoff put out a call today to ensure the GI Bill improvements becomes a reality:

This was truly a historic vote, and the numbers give me tremendous confidence for the future of the GI Bill. We had a little debate at IAVA HQ about whether to call the margin "powerful" or "overwhelming" - but the real adjective is this: VETO-PROOF.

The President has threatened on multiple occasions to veto the emergency supplemental if it includes war timelines or other policy restrictions, or if it goes over his arbitrary budget cap. The Administration has also expressed objections to the GI Bill based on concerns about retention - basically, they believe that if a GI Bill benefit is too good, it'll reward veterans too richly for their service and draw them away from re-enlisting. You can read my response to that nonsensical argument here.

So with a veto threat looming, we haven't won yet.

There is one final hurdle--and it is a big one: the President. When the politicians return to Washington after Memorial Day, Congress will get a final version of the war funding bill to the President, and President Bush will have to decide whether he is with Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, or against them.

We've seen today that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle can come together to support our troops. With your help, we can ensure the President will do the same.

On the resistance to the legislation in its present form, UPI:

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates supports an enhanced GI bill, but thinks some of the proposals may discourage an all-volunteer force, the Pentagon said. Gates is "greatly encouraged" by the support enhanced educational benefits for veterans enjoys and considers the legislation moving forward "extremely generous," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said Wednesday.

"We have no issue with the fact that it is generous. We think our troops deserve to be rewarded for their service," Morrell said. Some of the bills moving through Congress may hurt retention by offering educational benefits after just two years of service, Morrell said. Gates supports enhanced benefits after six years of service to reward service members re-enlisting at least once.

"We are not trying to keep people here forever, but we are trying to create a system in which troops see the benefit of making a career out of the military," Morrell said. Gates says he will work with Congress on a revamped GI bill, but "in a way that does not jeopardize our national security," Morrell said.

One veteran countered this opinion earlier this week in an AP piece:

Dan Parker, who spent five years in the Marines, is now attending the University of Kansas on the GI Bill. He said Monday that the additional funding proposed in a bill passed by the House last week would encourage more veterans to go to college and complete their degrees. He said the Senate should pass the bill and President Bush should sign it.

"I think it would a politically devastating mistake if the president were to veto it," Parker said.

Parker spoke at a news conference at Topeka High School with Rep. Nancy Boyda, a member of the House Armed Services Committee and Democrat representing the 2nd District of Kansas. Boyda said her father took advantage of the original GI Bill when she was growing up in Missouri.

"The GI Bill is what actually took our family to the middle class," Boyda said. ...The House last week adopted changes to the program, which was first enacted after World War II to help returning veterans earn college education. The new measure would increase funding for the bill, providing veterans with 100 percent of their tuition to a public university.

Boyda said changes in the bill also would make it an attractive tool for the National Guard to recruit new members. Soldiers who have at least three months of active duty since Sept. 11, 2001, would be eligible for the full education benefits. And the benefits would extend for 15 years, up from the current 10 years.

Parker said he had about 15 hours of courses left to finish his degree in English and political science. He has worked jobs on campus and in the Lawrence community to pay his college bills. Parker joined the Marines after high school in McPherson. He was in Iraq in 2003, then Liberia as part of a Marine expeditionary force. He returned to Iraq in 2004 in Anbar Province west of Baghdad.

In college, Parker is a member of the Kansas Collegiate Veterans Association, a group that serves as a conduit for veterans on campus and the community. The group helps veterans work through campus issues, he said, such as working out a system for paying tuition bills that matches payment schedules for GI Bill checks. He said that only about 30 percent of veterans use their GI Bill benefits, and of that only 8 percent will get a college degree.

Parker is weighing his options after college, including returning to the Marines, perhaps as an officer.

Late last year, I discussed the GI Bill with a few of the more than 100 returning veterans now enrolled at Northern Illinois University. Because they attend college in Illinios -- a state that picks up the tab where the federal GI Bill leaves off, providing 100% of tuition support to its veterans -- most were very happy with the benefits they received and the stepping stone that college provided.

While Iraq and Afghanistan veterans I interviewed spoke highly of the financial benefits they received, Jonathan Lehuta, former Vietnam veteran and faculty advisor of the school’s Veterans Club, offered another insight into the value education holds for those coming back from foreign combat zones.

“I view school as kind of a bumper,” he said. “You can do some networking and make some more contacts, instead of just jumping back into an area you’ve been away from for a long time.”

There are other benefits, too.

One of the hardest things about re-entry to civilian society for veterans is the loss of the bonds they share with others veterans, bonds forged under fire or by simply being together for long periods of time in similar situations and surroundings.

Veterans -- no matter if they served in different divisions or even different conflicts -- often feel more comfortable with one another than with anyone else, and they miss that instant acceptance and understanding. Veterans' clubs in educational settings give them the opportunity to tap into that camaraderie again. The non-clinical setting for battle buddies to come together and support each other goes a long way in helping them to process their past deployment experiences and map our their next steps.

In this way, the GI Bill has more than just an educational value.

Therefore, while not directly related to PTSD, restoring the educational benefits of today's GI Bill to WWII-era levels will improve the lot for our returning troops -- and may very well reduce some of the post-deployment stress and strain that many of them face as they make their way back into civil society.

But, the WWII version of the GI Bill also paid for room, board, and books, allowing that generation's veterans to fully focus on their studies and not worry about how they will make ends meet in the meantime. From PBS:

[O]ver 16,000,000 Americans who served during [WWII]. In 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the "Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944," better known as the "GI Bill of Rights." This bill has been called by some historians the most important piece of legislation since the Homestead Act. Drafted by the American Legion, the bill provided for tuition, books and living expenses for up to four years of college or vocational schools. It made low-interest mortgages available to for homeowners, and farm and small business loans at low interest as well. There was also a twenty dollar a week allowance for returning vets looking for employment. The bill also established veterans' hospitals and provided for vocational rehabilitation for disabled veterans.

The impact of the G.I. Bill was immense; over one million veterans enrolled in college in 1946 alone. By 1956, over 10 million veterans had used the educational benefit. From 1944 to 1949, nearly 9 million veterans received close to $4 billion from the unemployment compensation program. The Veterans' Administration offered insured loans until 1962, and they totaled more than $50 billion.

Subsequent legislation extended these benefits to veterans of the Korean War, and the Readjustment Benefits Act of 1966 extended them to all who served in the armed forces even in peacetime. An updated G.I. Bill of Rights, called the Montgomery G.I. Bill is now in effect.

A short, but informative and entertaining, historical glance back and look at the present fight from

WWII vets reflect on what the benefits did for them -- and the country -- in a 2000 PBS special:

JOHN MOSER: The wonderful thing about the GI Bill was, of course, the fact I did not have to work. My wife did work, but I did not have to. The college - the government paid for all expenses; they paid for tuition; they paid for books, and they gave us a magnificent sum of $90 a month that we could squander away on food and housing.

SPENCER MICHELS: The GIs flooded the campuses. In the words of the New York Times they were "hogging the honor rolls." The veterans doubled college registration in the 1940s, forcing schools to build temporary housing facilities.

In addition to education, the law provided low-interest home mortgages backed by the federal government. That sparked a demand for new homes in the post war years - a key ingredient to the exploding growth of suburbia.

JOHN MOSER: After I got hold of the GI Bill and we bought a house in Rockville, Maryland, at the fantastic rate of 4.25 percent interest, which I thought was very, very high in those days. In fact, when we finally sold that house, I lost my GI Bill. I went to 5.5 percent, and I was very, very upset about that.

SPENCER MICHELS: The GI Bill also provided business loans to veterans, established veterans' hospitals, and provided unemployment benefits that included a $20-a-week allowance for up to a year, the so-called 52/20 Club.

Statistically, the law far exceeded anyone's expectations. It provided education vouchers to 8 million veterans. It doubled the ratio of homeowners from one in three before the war to two in three afterwards. And according to a 1986 government study, each dollar invested in the bill yielded 5 to 12 dollars in tax revenues. Over the years, the GI Bill has been called many things by historians and veterans alike - a Marshall Plan for America, a Magic Carpet to the Middle Class.

ED PADELFORD: Well, I think the term the "magic carpet" probably is correct. I mean, as I said, it enabled me to go to college, which I doubt whether without it I couldn't have done that, and it enabled me to make a career in the State Department and the Foreign Service, not to mention the Air Force Reserve. It eventually got me up to Air Force Colonel. And so it was - it was essential - the GI Bill. I mean, without it, none of these things could have occurred.

Unfortunately, we are in such times that desires for long-term investment in anything -- even the most important capitol there is, the human kind -- usually get steamrolled over by short-term budget considerations. But, Congress is doing their best to buck that trend here, and it should be supported by everyone.

Unfortunately, it is not. In addition, as with most issues, politics enters into the fray. From MSNBC:

In the simplest terms, the Webb bill would effectively pay for tuition and housing at a four-year public college for those serving at least three years of active duty. The McCain measure isn't as generous, as it increases existing education benefits by $400 a month for the same time served: from $1,100 to $1,500.

Democrats accused McCain, and his chief ally Sen. Lindsey Graham, of acting in bad faith by forcing a vote while a compromise bill was being sought. "I think this was an irresponsible act," Webb said after learning Republicans had attached the provision on an unrelated bill on the floor. "There was some wording in a letter that I received a couple of days ago from Senator McCain saying that they ... wanted to work with us to bring a bipartisan bill."

Sen. Dick Durbin, the No.2 Senate Democrat, said it was about the presidential campaign. "He's trying to bring his version of the GI Bill to a vote on the Senate floor, so that he can say that he at least tried -- or at least those who vote his way have some cover," Durbin said.

McCain's supporters shot back. Republican Judd Gregg said it was "public knowledge" the Democrats were planning to block McCain and Graham from offering their bill. "The only way, the only way that Sen. Graham could protect his rights was to bring the amendment forward at this time."

Another difference between the two bills concerns active personnel being able to transfer their educational benefits to their spouse or children. McCain's bill allows 50% of those benefits to be transferred after six years of service; 100% after 12 years.

Webb called transferability "an unproven concept" that's been around for decades. "There has been a pilot program available in current law since [2001] for the United States military to test the transferability program if the service secretaries decided that they wanted to try it," he said. "They haven't really tried it."

The Administration sided with McCain, arguing benefits that were too generous and too early in active duty service would hurt reenlistments -- and would lure service members off of military bases and onto college campuses. "My job is to get people to stay in the military, not only to join, but to stay as well," McCain said from the campaign trail in Ohio Wednesday.

MSNBC segments on the ensuing political fight, including the dust up between expected presidential nominees, Sens.Barack Obama and John McCain [this is the only YouTube clip of this interview segment available right now...edited horribly ; will replace with a better version when one becomes avlb]:

Today's Senate vote follows advances in this and other veterans issues areas in the House as Jim Abrams reported via AP:

Setting aside differences over the war in Iraq, the House voted unanimously Tuesday to provide financial and tax relief to military personnel. The action came as the Senate debated a major expansion in college education benefits for veterans. In the run-up to Memorial Day, the House was taking up more than a dozen bills either to help or honor veterans and those on active duty, highlighted by the $2 billion tax package.

The bill, passed 403-0, allows active-duty reservists to make penalty-free withdrawals from retirement plans, and makes permanent a law including combat pay as earned income for purposes of the Earned Income Tax Credit. It provides a tax credit of up to $4,000 for small businesses that continue to pay their National Guard and Reserve employees while they are on active duty and makes thousands of veterans eligible for low-interest homeowner loans.

"I would prefer to call it the thank you bill," said Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., echoing sentiments that Congress needs to do more to show appreciation for those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Rangel said that appreciation included the GI education bill that the House passed last week as part of its war-spending legislation and now is being considered by the Senate. That bill, sponsored by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., would essentially guarantee a full scholarship to any public, in-state university for people who serve in the military for three years.

Some of the House's fiercest critics of the war in Iraq spoke on behalf of the veterans' bills. The tax relief measure, said Rep Jim McDermott, D-Wash., would "ensure that service to our nation does not disadvantage those who serve." ...

Among other House bills considered Tuesday and heading for the Senate:

_HR 3681 allowing the VA Department to purchase national media outlets to provide information on benefits.

_HR 3819 requiring the VA to pay non-VA hospitals for care while emergency patients wait for transfer to VA facilities.

_HR 5729 expanding care for children with spina bifida whose Vietnam War veteran fathers were exposed to agent orange.

_HR 5826 approving an annual cost-of-living increase for veterans' disability compensation.

_HR 5554 expanding care for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse.

Veterans Affairs Secretary James Peake said at a news conference Tuesday that he was committed to promoting "trust and competence" at the VA in light of growing congressional criticism that the agency might not be forthcoming in how well it treats veterans' mental health problems.

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