Patrick Campbell / San Francisco Chronicle – 2008-05-05 00:05:14
(May 4, 2008) — When I was sitting in a humvee in Baghdad two years ago, we had plenty of time to talk. While the conversations varied between musing about the morning’s chow, the stifling heat or what type of truck we were going to buy when we got home, one theme remained constant. Everyone said they were going home to get that college degree that Uncle Sam promised us when we enlisted.
Last December, a year and a half late, I finally graduated. I still laugh when people ask me whether the military paid for my education. When I tell them how meager the actual education benefits are, their shock always make me feel like I just told a child that there is no such thing as the tooth fairy.
Unfortunately, many of my battle buddies realized the hard way that the GI Bill isn’t what it used to be. The education benefits for troops are so low that they either never enrolled, or dropped out of school because they couldn’t handle working two part-time jobs or living back home on Mama’s couch to afford to attend school.
My fellow veterans are struggling because the current GI Bill is woefully inadequate. Service members are forced to take out loans just to start classes, and then wait months to get any reimbursement. Even then, the benefit only covers 60 to 70 percent of the cost of a four-year public university. For expensive private schools, the GI Bill is barely a drop in the bucket. And every year, the GI Bill is losing value because education benefits have failed to keep up with the skyrocketing cost of education.
We can do better. In 1944, Congress passed the original GI Bill, which made a promise to our fighting men and women that when they returned home from the field of battle, their thankful country would repay that service by sending them to the college of their choice. After World War II, nearly 8 million service members (more than half of the entire American fighting force) took advantage of the education benefits afforded them by the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944. A veteran of World War II was entitled to free tuition, books and a living stipend that completely covered the cost of education.
Today, we are still reaping the benefits of one of the greatest social investment programs ever implemented. A 1988 congressional study proved that every dollar spent on educational benefits under the original GI Bill added $7 to the national economy in terms of productivity, consumer spending and tax revenue. Many of our leaders and luminaries took advantage of the GI Bill, including former Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, former Sen. Bob Dole, and authors Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer and Frank McCourt.
The opportunities we have offered today’s veterans are very different. Most of my battle buddies returned home to the same jobs that they left. But the transition from making daily life-or-death decisions to asking customers whether they would like foam in their coffee is a tough pill to swallow. Others have not been able to return to work at all; 18 percent of recently returned service members are unemployed. These veterans have proved themselves on the battlefield and should be given the chance to become community leaders once they get home.
For the hundreds of thousands of veterans returning with a mental health injury, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, earning a college degree will also create a safe space to readjust to civilian life. Since I have been back, there have been at least a few days when I was unable to attend class because something I saw in the news caused my mind to shoot right back into that cramped humvee. Thankfully, as a student, I had the luxury to take those days off and get the notes from a friend. Unfortunately, I know many veterans working full-time jobs who have had their jobs threatened because their bosses couldn’t understand why that veteran needed a personal day.
A World War II-style GI Bill is more than just a social investment or an ethical obligation to our veterans; it’s an important readiness tool. The GI Bill is the military’s single most effective recruitment incentive; the No. 1 reason civilians join the military is to get money for college.
We have already seen the military double the number of GED waivers and increase the number of felonies allowable by a recruit. Enlistment bonuses have already climbed to $40,000 and could grow even higher. Instead of lowering standards and handing out big cash bonuses, why not keep the promise we made to our veterans, and help them get the education they have earned? As our military recovers and resets in the coming years, an expanded GI Bill will play a crucial role in ensuring that our military remains the strongest and most advanced in the world.
It is not too late to show real support for our servicemen and women. Congress is currently debating the Post 9/11 Veterans Education Assistance Program, a new GI Bill that will once again fully cover the cost of veterans’ education. The bill has the support of the most prominent veterans in Congress, including Sens. Jim Webb, John Warner, Chuck Hagel and Frank Lautenberg, and more than 230 other Democrats and Republicans. But it will take the commitment of congressional leadership to see this bill signed into law.
Like their fellow veterans of World War II and Korea, my battle buddies have earned the chance to readjust to civilian life by making college a full-time job. Today, we have the opportunity to renew our social contract with our servicemen and women. Giving these veterans the real education benefits they were promised will help build this country’s next “Greatest Generation.”
Patrick Campbell, former student body president at UC Berkeley, served in Iraq in 2004 and 2005 with the Louisiana National Guard and is now the legislative director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
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