One of the best-known Veterans benefits and one that defined the World War II generation -- the GI Bill -- has emerged amid a perfect storm of controversy for the War on Terror Generation, engulfing the Bush White House, both sides of the aisle in the Senate and House, the Pentagon and the 2008 presidential campaign.
We found some very interesting data in a nationwide poll of our members: 55% of Veterans Advantage members approve of Virginia Senator Jim Webb's proposed upgrade of educational benefits for the military, otherwise known as the GI Bill. It's being positioned as an expansive upgrade, $52 billion worth.
Meanwhile, 45% of Veterans Advantage members surveyed support Republican Presidential Candidate John McCain's proposal, one that would increase with the length of service of the serviceman or woman. The White House, by the way, seems to be offering a compromise of the two, with transferability of GI Bill benefits to family members, too.
But the good news, no matter what you think, is the new Post-9/11 GI Bill represents an upgrade, GI Bill Version 2.0, as one could call it. At issue, by how much -- and when.
To the chagrin of the Bush White House, Republicans in the U.S. Senate late last month joined the majority of Democrats to pass a bill offering a full-paid college education for Iraq and Afghan War veterans. The senate also passed a $165 billion emergency funding bill for the war, while rejecting a troop withdrawal timetable and restrictions on U.S. war policy.
The measure was initiated by Senator Jim Webb from Virginia, who has been championing the cause for a new and improved GI Bill for months.
“This was a reasonable enlistment incentive for peacetime service, but it is an insufficient reward for wartime service today. It is hardly enough to allow a veteran to attend many community colleges,” said Webb and Republican Chuck Hagel of Nebraska in a NY Times Op-Ed piece late last year.
The senators also estimated the current GI Bill would cover only about 13 percent of the cost of attending Columbia University, 42 percent at the University of Hawaii, 14 percent at Washington and Lee, 26 percent at U.C.L.A. and 11 percent at Harvard Law School.
The passage – which may have earned Webb some Vice Presidential buzz as a Barack Obama running mate – also poses a threat to Bush Administration hopes of getting a “clean” War funding bill through Congress. Bush had warned he will veto the Iraq war funding bill if it contains extra domestic spending, which it includes. It is unclear whether Democrats have the votes to override the veto in the House of Representatives like it did in the veto-proof 75-22 majority it won in the Senate.
At issue is an expansion of the GI bill that would guarantee full college scholarships for those who serve in the military for three years. The Webb measure represents a $52 billion commitment over 10 years. Obama and his rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, returned to Washington for the vote. Republican Senator John McCain, meanwhile, stayed in California to campaign, but did not hesitate to voice his concern.
The fact that Mr. Webb’s bill was co-sponsored by Republicans such as Sens. John W. Warner (Va.), the ranking member on the Armed Services Committee, and Chuck Hagel (Neb.), a former deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration, adds to its credibility. But as Mr. McCain pointed out, "It would be easier, much easier, politically for me to have joined Sen. Webb in offering his legislation." – The McCain campaign noted in a press release. The vote prompted McCain and Obama to trade public barbs about who’s more committed to the well being of veterans.
An anti-Webb counterproposal from McCain appears in lockstep with the Pentagon, mostly out of concern that providing such a benefit after only three years of service would encourage people to leave the military after only one enlistment even as the U.S. fights two wars and is trying to increase the size of the Army and Marine Corps. McCain said he worries it would reduce the number of noncommissioned officers.
The McCain proposal for an improved GI Bill would increase educational benefits with an increased term of service. Proponents argue that this measure would also ensure 100% transferability of the benefits to family members, while the Webb measure includes only a pilot program for transferability.
“Congress needs to support our military families by passing an expansion of the GI Bill that makes it easier for our troops to transfer unused education benefits to their spouses and children. It is critical for this legislation to support the all-volunteer force and help us recruit and retain the best military in the world,” said President Bush, in his radio address to the nation this past weekend, as an offering of support to the McCain proposal.
Meanwhile, The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, has countered by rallying around the Webb proposal, and posted on the Internet a special Web site encouraging people log in to sign a petition encouraging its passage.
"This is a historic victory for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. After World War II, America made sure our troops coming home had the chance to go to college," said Paul Rieckhoff, Executive Director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, after its passage just before the Memorial Day holiday weekend. "With Memorial Day just around the corner, our lawmakers renewed that promise and honored those who bravely serve this country."
It may take some time, but all hopes are that a new-and-improved GI Bill gains the support of all parties involved and, above all, offer a better future for all who are serving today.
Editor's Note: Since publication of this story, historic passage of the new GI Bill was enacted, legislative improvements were signed by the president in January 2011, and applications are being accepted by the US Department of Veterans Affairs.
Image Credit: https://andrewfullerblog.wordpress.com/2010/12/11/are-ex-cadets-eligible-for-the-post-911-gi-bill/