Following its healthcare “Vote-A-Rama,” the U.S. Senate will soon act on the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017, named after the American Legion officer and World War I veteran who was an architect of the World War II GI Bill.
This bill expands eligibility for and extends indefinitely the benefits of the 2008 Post-9/11 GI Bill authored by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.). Over 1.5 million veterans have been supported by this program. Unusual in Washington today, the current legislation enjoys bipartisan support. The House vote was 405-0 and Senate passage seems certain.
In March, there was a serious proposal to charge service members to enroll in GI Bill coverage. It failed to advance. The current wars are the first sustained wars in American history without a dedicated tax to help pay for them. That proposal would have taxed—but only those who serve.
The ranks of the American military today are filled with volunteers. They do not represent the nation demographically, tending to be more rural than urban, more heartland than coastal, largely from blue collar and middle-class backgrounds. They tend to come from military families. They constitute less than 1 percent of the population. With no tax and no service requirement the rest of us go on with our lives.
They are the best educated of Americans to serve in any war, better educated than their age group as a whole. The armed forces today expect at least a high school education. Unfortunately, a high school education is insufficient in this modern economy. The recent pattern of veterans having higher unemployment rates than non-veterans was largely the result of their educational background rather than their military service.
As Congress considers this legislation, all must recognize that this bill is not a “thank you for your service” gratuity. It may provide an incentive to serve and a fully-deserved acknowledgement of having done so, enabling veterans in their transitions back to civilian life. It is also an investment in the future of the Republic.
If today’s military volunteers do not represent the nation demographically, they do not represent it attitudinally either.
In recent years there has been a marked decline in a shared sense of civic engagement. Our national discourse has often been reduced to a contest of individuals or groups pursuing their self-interests. Ideology and partisanship have come to represent and to channel these goals. Political figures do not ask anyone for sacrifice.
Those young citizens who volunteered to serve stand for something different. They still understand John Kennedy’s plea to ask not what the country can do for you but what you can do for the country. Sen. John McCainJohn McCainGI Bill 2017: Investing in the future of the Republic Five takeaways from ObamaCare repeal’s collapse Trump on healthcare: ‘It’s going to be fine’ MORE (R-Ariz.) has described it as fighting for a cause larger than yourself.
These veterans have worked effectively with others of different backgrounds, assumed personal responsibility and accountability, functioned in complex organizations in an advanced technological environment, and confronted dangerous situations while respecting people of different cultures. They have learned discipline and restraint and self-confidence—and tolerance. They have observed—and offered—sacrifice for a greater good.
A recent Student Veterans of America study indicated that today’s veterans are completing their degrees at a high level in rigorous fields. In the first six years of the 2008 GI Bill 450,000 completed degree or certificate programs.
They want to continue to serve. A veteran involved with a program encouraging veterans to run for political office informed me that there were perhaps 100 veterans considering filing to run for congressional and senatorial seats next year. We need the voices of Americans seeking to continue to serve their country. Their entire country.
We properly salute the contributions of the World War II generation. They served and prevailed in a brutal war. They continued to serve for their lifetimes in courtrooms and classrooms and emergency rooms and board rooms and community organizations and legislative chambers. They were enabled by their GI Bill. They in turn worked for a better world.
If the Vietnam veterans received a colder homecoming, they have stepped up over the last half century to provide leadership and service to their country. And they have extended their hands to the veterans of the wars of this century.
I have visited patients at Bethesda and Walter Reed Hospitals over 30 times beginning in 2005, encouraging them to continue their education. They have inspired me. That first summer I met a young marine then who was seriously injured in the November 2004 battle of Fallujah. He wanted to continue his education and to make a difference. He studied Arabic and other subjects, graduated with honors and then worked for the Army, including a posting in Afghanistan. But he wanted to be a medical doctor.
With the GI Bill he studied pre-med courses and is currently a third-year medical student. He hopes to serve as a U.S. Navy doctor, paying back for his care. He is prepared to waive his VA disability benefits in order to return to active duty. To serve some more.
This generation of veterans will make their own claim to greatness. Supporting the education that will enable them to continue to serve is a national investment and not a fringe benefit. Their country needs them now more than ever.
James Wright, President Emeritus of Dartmouth College, served in the Marine Corps from 1957-1960. He is the author of the recent Enduring Vietnam: An American Generation and its War. He worked with Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) and others on the 2008 Post 9/11 GI Bill.
The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.