June 27, 2008 – Washington, DC – As Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, I am charged with ensuring that our veterans receive the very best care, honor and respect that a grateful Nation can bestow. I am pleased that Congress made good on one of our promises to veterans when we recently passed a GI Bill for the 21st Century. The bill updates veterans’ education benefits to meet current demands. Congress will soon be sending the GI Bill to the White House and President Bush has promised to sign the bill.
The GI Bill for the 21st Century will cover the costs of a four-year college education for the brave men and women returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – on a par with the educational benefits available after World War II. This bill will give our returning troops the tools to succeed after military service, strengthen our economy in the face of increasing global competition, and make military service more attractive as we work to rebuild our military. We owe our veterans a future that is equal to the first-class service that they have given to our country.
The original GI bill sparked economic growth and expansion for a whole generation of Americans. It made a free college education available to more than 15 million war veterans after World War II. The original GI bill paid the full cost of tuition at any public or private college or university. By 1956, about 8 million World War II veterans had taken advantage of the GI bill education and training benefit, including some of our nation’s greatest leaders. According to a congressional study, the original GI bill returned $7 to the economy for every $1 spent.
The GI Bill for the 21st Century will make America’s veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan part of a new American economic recovery. In order to compete in the global market, we must continue to support investments in higher education and job training, and this bill does just that. Educated veterans have higher income levels, which increase our national prosperity.
In recent decades, educational benefits for veterans have not been as expansive as the original GI bill – and no longer fully cover the costs of a four-year college education.
Currently, veterans’ educational benefits are administered under the Montgomery GI Bill – a program designed primarily for peacetime, not wartime, service. Indeed, current educational benefits under the Montgomery GI Bill pay only about 60 percent of a public college education and 30 percent of a private college education. Furthermore, Reservists and National Guardsmen, who have made an unprecedented commitment with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, get only a fraction of that.
The GI Bill for the 21st Century increases education benefits for all those who have served at least three months on active duty since 9/11. Under the bill, those who have served for three years or more would qualify for the full educational benefit – i.e., the costs of a four-year education up to the level of the most expensive in-state public college. Those who have served between three months and three years of active duty would qualify for a proportion of that full benefit.
Also, for those service members with six years of service, coupled with an additional service agreement of at least four years, the New GI Bill allows them to transfer unused educational benefits to their wives and children. This plan also recognizes the sacrifice of our 1.8 million Reserve and National Guard troops by better aligning their educational benefits with their length of service.
My greatest concern is that this bill does not include a vital part of the original GI bill, the home loan guarantee program. I will continue to work to address the housing concerns that are not addressed in this legislation, and I hope that my colleagues will join me in fulfilling this pledge.
Last year, Congress made the largest increase in veterans’ health care funding in American history, when we increased VA funding by 30 percent, successfully adding $12 billion more than the President’s request and $39 billion more over five years. The new GI Bill is an even larger fiscal commitment to our nation’s veterans – providing a quality educational benefit for those to whom we owe so much.
While we have made much progress, new challenges continue to mount. Tens of thousands of service members are being discharged from the military without adequate diagnosis or treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury. Refusing to face this challenge, leaders at the VA have attempted to manipulate suicide data to portray a lesser problem. In addition, the claims backlog for VA benefits now totals well over 600,000. The VA also failed to protect our veterans when they became more involved with research than providing treatment – When Chantix, an anti-smoking drug, was linked to suicidal thoughts and aggressive and erratic behavior, the VA failed to immediately eliminate their testing of veterans, placing them under increased risk.
It is obvious that our work has just begun, and I will continue to fight to hold the VA accountable for their actions and provide the very best care to our nation’s veterans. I will work to transition the VA from Veterans Adversary to Veterans Advocate!