March 26, 2008 – While he was busy amassing the wealth that made him one of the world’s richest men, Jerome Kohlberg didn’t realize how much things had changed since the original GI Bill sent him to college 60 years ago.
In his retirement, it was a conversation with a man whose job it is to help him give away chunks of his fortune that has made him press for a new GI bill for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Matthew Boulay spent much of 2003 in Iraq with his Marine Corps reserve unit, then had to foot much of the bill for his ensuing education.
“I thought that was awful. It just made me angry, and I’m angry to this day,” Kohlberg, 82, said yesterday at his home in Rancho Santa Fe, where he lives part of the year.
He has spoken to senators from three states to press for passage of a bill that would cover all educational expenses, including room and board, for anyone who has served in the military, reserves or National Guard since Sept. 11, 2001.
Kohlberg believes that because of the sophistication and power of today’s weaponry, veterans of the two current wars face much more danger than those who fought in World War II.
Late last year, Kohlberg started the Fund for Veterans’ Education with $8 million for the purpose of granting scholarships to veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He assigned Boulay, who had been an administrator for one of his philanthropic foundations, to run the fund.
Kohlberg recently started distributing that money to 96 veterans who will get $500 to $14,000 per semester for their undergraduate studies.
Today’s GI Bill tops out at about $39,000 for veterans’ college tuition and books. It’s much less for reservists such as Marine Sgt. Evan Aanerud.
“Obviously that’s not enough to finish school with,” said Aanerud, an engineering student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo who will meet his benefactor today at a ceremony at Southwestern College in Chula Vista.
Aanerud said that when he was an 18-year-old enlisting in the Corps five years ago, “I thought I was going to get a lot more benefits than I actually received.”
Aanerud served as a machine gunner in Iraq in 2003. His government benefits ran out in December. The National Center for Education Statistics estimates the cost of a four-year degree at a public university at about 50,000, including room, board and all expenses, and $100,000 at private universities.
Senators Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and Jim Webb, D-Va., have sponsored legislation that would increase veterans’ benefits to cover the cost of public university tuition, books and housing.
It has the endorsement of several veterans organizations, and the national advocacy organization Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America has taken it up as one of its leading causes.
Locally, U.S. Rep. Bob Filner, D-San Diego, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, also supports increasing education benefits.
“This is something we owe,” Kohlberg said. Taking care of returning veterans is part of the cost of war as Kohlberg sees it, just like after World War II.
Back then, Kohlberg had just finished three years in the Navy, a lieutenant in charge of the stores the U.S. military shopped at in Panama. When he returned, the U.S. government sent nearly 8 million veterans, including him, to school.
Kohlberg the veteran makes the moral argument that Congress needs to restore the compact between the warriors and their government. Kohlberg the capitalist makes an economic argument. The original GI Bill’s massive swords-to-plowshares effort converted the world’s mightiest military into a nation’s middle class.
With the aid of the U.S. government, Kohlberg got a bachelor’s degree from Swarthmore College, a master’s degree from Harvard Business School and a law degree from Columbia University School of Law. In part because of the help they got from the government, Kohlberg said, his peers got better jobs and spent more money, paid more taxes and assumed more leadership roles in civilian life.
A new GI bill that covers all educational expenses of veterans is a good investment, one he estimates will pay five to 10 times its upfront amount.
Kohlberg knows something about investments. As a pioneer of the leveraged buyout, he has amassed a $1.5 billion fortune that according to a Forbes list published this month makes him the world’s 785th richest person.
Until Congress agrees to make that investment, Kohlberg will invest on his own.
There is another difference between now and then, Kohlberg said. The current wars have been financed largely by debt, while seemingly everyone in the nation sacrificed for the World War II effort, he said.
Kohlberg said he believes that even those who oppose the Iraq war as he does would agree that the nation must do more to support veterans of that war.
“We’re lucky we’ve been just sitting here on our duffs, all of us doing nothing for the war,” Kohlberg said. “We haven’t even been asked.”
The Fund for Veterans’ Education
What: Organization that grants scholarships ranging from $500 to $14,000 per semester
Who’s eligible: Veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars
How to apply: Visit veteransfund.org. The next application period starts April 1.