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Why skimp on the GI Bill?

November 11, 2005|Suzanne Mettler | SUZANNE METTLER is the author of "Soldiers to Citizens: The G.I. Bill and the Making of the Greatest Generation" (Oxford University Press, 2005).

ALTHOUGH MAGNETIC RIBBONS and hometown fundraisers show Americans' gratitude for the troops' sacrifices in the war on terror, as a nation we have done less than we should to truly honor them when they return home. In contrast to World War II veterans, whose transition back to civilian life was eased by the education and training benefits of the first GI Bill, service members now find a policy that is much less generous, inclusive and fair.

For those returning today from Kandahar, Fallouja or Baghdad, educational benefits have fallen way behind college costs, even for the active-duty forces. Reserve and National Guard units, though they make up fully half of the U.S. troops deployed in Iraq, receive substantially less. The word in Washington is that there is simply no money -- even for the 1% of Americans who make up our all-volunteer military.

During World War II, when the draft was in effect and the demand for troops was high, nearly everyone had a relative or a neighbor serving in the military. The armed forces mirrored the general male population more closely than in any subsequent war. Then, during the Vietnam War, deferrals for students permitted more privileged Americans to avoid the draft. In 1973, the nation formally broke with the long-standing principle that military service was a fundamental obligation of all male citizens. Today's smaller forces are considerably less representative. Blacks, Latinos and whites from working-class backgrounds are far more likely than others to volunteer to serve.

That technological advances permit us to limit the size of our armed forces certainly means progress for society. But the principles of democracy would seem to require that those of us who refrain from military service bear some collective responsibility.

Sixty years ago, when the nation united against Nazism and fascism, those on the home front were called on to contribute to the war effort. They saved scrap metal and rubber, planted victory gardens and worked in defense plants. Today, we've been asked to do nothing, unless you count President Bush's request after 9/11 that we go shopping. Sacrifice? Heck, no. We've got tax cuts, the lion's share of which go to the wealthiest 1% of Americans.

Historically, the more widely shared citizens' sacrifices were during wartime, the more generous our nation has been toward veterans. The landmark GI Bill of 1944 epitomized the granting of widespread opportunity for those who did their civic duty. More than half of all returning veterans -- 7.8 million -- utilized the bill's provisions. The benefits gave veterans from less-advantaged backgrounds chances they had never dreamed possible and a route toward the middle class.

Since World War II, as the military became less representative of the citizenry, the scope of subsequent versions of the GI Bill narrowed as well. Today's GI Bill, created in 1984, means much to its beneficiaries, but it pales compared to the original. Benefits today -- despite recent increases -- have not kept pace with the rising cost of higher education.

The World War II version gave veterans a full ride, covering tuition at any college, public or private, as well as in vocational training programs. Today's veterans face bills of $1,712 per month for full-time tuition, room and board at the average four-year public university or college, but the GI Bill offers them, at most, $1,034 monthly. And though most are married, they receive none of the "subsistence allowances" that helped World War II veterans and their families cover living expenses.

If the GI Bill is to be fair once again, it needs to reach the broader parameters of today's total force. Of the 152,000 U.S. troops serving in Iraq, 75,000 are in the Guard or Reserve, with tours of duty lasting, on average, at least one year. They suffer casualty rates that in recent months have surpassed those of the active-duty troops. Yet when they come home, their benefits are only one-third as much. And if they leave the service, they get nothing.

The law must also be simplified. Veterans and program administrators deal with cumbersome and confusing bureaucratic rules emanating from the differential treatment of National Guard members and reservists versus regular troops. Congress attempted to address such inequities by enacting a new policy for reservists last year, but its excessive complexity means that checks have yet to be issued. Legislation was introduced in the House of Representatives this year that would restore the generosity of the World War II, but it languishes in committee.

Surely we owe those few Americans who volunteer on our behalf a GI Bill equal to that which benefited the "greatest generation." That's the least the other 99% of us can do.

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