MORE THAN a few people have been puzzled by Sen. John McCain's dogged opposition to the updated GI Bill of Rights now before Congress. The dissonance between McCain's military-man image and his actions on this issue have introduced a jarring note to his presidential aspirations -- and have highlighted the shoddy treatment many Iraq war veterans have received.
Why would a Vietnam War veteran and former prisoner of war, a man who is personally acquainted with the difficulties vets can face in returning to civilian life, join President Bush in opposing a popular bipartisan bill to support the troops? Isn't fixing the education benefit in the bill -- one that has shortchanged far too many veterans for years -- a political no-brainer in an election year? The 75 senators who recently voted for it certainly thought so. Over the Memorial Day weekend, Sen. Barack Obama expressed some well-timed astonishment at McCain’s opposition, and the two have been feuding about it ever since. The media and pundits seem perplexed, collectively suggesting: That's not the John McCain we know.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, June 03, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 17 Editorial pages Desk 1 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
GI Bill: A May 30 Op-Ed article about the GI Bill said the 1944 bill offered full benefits to any veteran who served 90 days. The bill paid for 12 months of college or vocational school if a veteran served 90 days, with additional benefits, up to 48 months of school, for each month of military service.
Which is true: It is the John McCain they don't know. If the media weren't so mesmerized by the McCain image they have long promoted and instead got to know the McCain record, they would realize that there is nothing surprising or inconsistent about his position on the GI Bill. For years he has opposed legislation that veterans and their advocates deem vital. In doing so, he is simply being true to the contemporary conservative wing of the GOP and its leader, George W. Bush, in opposing social programs and benefits for individuals, even if those individuals happen to be veterans. The only surprise is that anyone finds this surprising.
This time, though, McCain is swimming against the tide of history. The original GI Bill -- signed into law in 1944 -- was one of the most important laws every adopted by Congress. It transformed the nation after World War II in epic fashion, with generous college benefits, stipends, subsidized mortgages, business loans and job training and placement.
Veterans got free rides to any college that would accept them. Tuition, books, housing and living expenses were all covered, giving rise to a new generation of scientists, inventors, teachers, doctors, civic leaders and artists. Low-interest, no-money-down home loans backed by the government made it cheaper to buy than to rent. Suburbia, widespread homeownership, college as a majority aspiration, the middle class -- all were built on the back of the GI Bill.
It reinvented the American dream. Bob Dole and George McGovern went to school on the GI Bill. So did Clint Eastwood and Paul Newman. So did 14 Nobel Prize winners. So did 7 million other World War II veterans.
Today's GI Bill, however, is a pale shadow of the original, particularly when it comes to college, as Congress has not kept the benefits in line with the rising cost of higher education. The World War II-era living stipend is gone; in its place, members of the military must agree to a $100 monthly payroll deduction to receive the college aid. An education benefit that sent WWII vets to Yale now won't cover four years at the average public university, though many recruits don't understand this when they sign up.
Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), a former Marine who served in Vietnam and who was President Reagan's Navy secretary, has made restoring the GI Bill education benefits one of his signature issues; it was his bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), that cleared the Senate over McCain's and Bush's opposition.
McCain argues that making the education benefits too generous will hurt retention, as enlistees will leave for college after three years rather than reenlist. McCain's position makes sense only by overlooking the fact that the main retention (and recruiting) problems facing the military are the Iraq war and the scandals plaguing military and veterans healthcare. (The most recent outrage: In a Memorial Day speech, Secretary of Veterans Affairs James Peake downplayed the seriousness of brain trauma suffered by tens of thousands of servicemen in Iraq and Afghanistan, calling many of their diagnoses "overblown" and likening them to youth football injuries.)
The inadequacy of the military's prime recruiting tool -- subsidized college educations -- is hurting recruitment too, and Webb argues this can be fixed only by fixing the GI Bill. He says McCain, a friend, "is missing the boat" by siding with the Bush Pentagon rather than veterans groups. Webb points to a Congressional Budget Office analysis that found any possible losses in retention caused by his bill would be balanced by the increases in recruitment it would generate.