April 20, 2008 – To date, 56 senators and more than 200 representatives have signed on to legislation to revamp GI educational benefits. They recognize that the men and women fighting today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not getting their due. But if Congress is serious about doing right by America’s veterans, it has to do more than come up with a list of names. It’s time to enact a new GI bill and pay for it.
Impetus for the bill comes from Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), a veteran with a family history of military service. Mr. Webb and a co-sponsor, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), also a veteran, rightly argue that post-Sept. 11 veterans are being shortchanged by a system designed for peacetime that has not kept pace with increased college costs. Their bill, introduced in January 2007, would be true to the original GI bill enacted after World War II in providing a cost-free education to those who serve in the military.
The bill got an important boost last week with backing from Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. Even with that support, though, advocates are worried that the bill might not advance, and so they are targeting other influential lawmakers, especially those who sit on important appropriations committees, to add the measure to the emergency supplemental appropriations bill this spring.
Disappointingly, Sen. John McCain, presumptive Republican candidate for president, so far declines to back the measure. He seems to be responding to concerns of the military brass that enhanced educational opportunities could negatively affect retention rates. Not only is it wrong to want people to stay in the military because they have no alternatives, but such thinking ignores the advantages enhanced educational benefits offer in recruitment. To meet recruitment goals, the military has offered bonuses and lowered some of its standards. Imagine being able instead to promise possible recruits a first-class college education.
The bill is not cheap; cost estimates range from $2 billion to $4 billion a year. But better-educated veterans have more favorable readjustment experiences, which means less money spent on treating post-traumatic stress disorder and other difficulties. More to the point, this should be considered part of the cost of war — and an obligation that the nation should gratefully fulfill.