Guest Post: Not Your Grandfather's GI Bill
By Robert Mackey
In 1944, Franklin Roosevelt signed into law the “Servicemen’s Readjustment Act,” what would be commonly called the “GI Bill.” It was a model of success, educating future presidents, Nobel Prize winners, writers, poets, musicians, and teachers, as well as a generation of mechanics, farmers, and technicians. By the time it expired in 1956, it had changed the face of American higher education and boosted a generation into the middle class.
On June 30, President Bush signed into law the newest version of the GI Bill, legislation that promised to reward the service of the men and women who have worn the uniform since September 11, 2001. This measure, which would significantly expand higher education benefits for veterans, has won bipartisan acclaim, with only a slight ripple from those concerned that the recipients of said governmental largesse will flee from the military in droves, cash in hand, ready to actually go to college.
These critics need not worry because, despite the hype, this bill is not really a new version of the World War II bill at all, but in many ways a repackaged enlistment benefit meant to tie the individual servicemember to the military for decades before full privileges are earned.
The original GI Bill was simply a reward for service. It was intended to ensure that troops coming back from World War II were able to get an education, move into the middle class, and contribute to the system, in stark contrast to how veterans had been treated since the American Revolution (a small "separation" pay if you were lucky, your likely ragged uniform and out the door). Most importantly, the original bill was not tied to future service—you didn’t enlist to gain the benefits; your past service was the only deciding factor. And the actual amount of money involved could be substantial: full tuition, books, room and board were covered until 1952, when an amendment to the act changed it to a simple stipend ($110 a month, the equivalent of about $900 in 2007).
Now, don’t get me wrong, the new bill also is generous, especially for those veterans who have not yet attended college. The new bill will cover the cost of tuition equal to “the most expensive in-State public institution of higher education”—big money if you are going to an expensive college. If you served for 36 months after 9/11, you get 100 percent of the entitlement; it is downgraded from there based on shorter service periods. Veterans also will receive $1,000 each year for books and supplies, and a housing allowance equal to that of an E-5 (in military jargon, the code for an Army or Marine sergeant, Air Force staff sergeant, or Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class). That is no small benefit—it would amount to as much as $1,855 a month for veterans living in Washington, DC. In all, the new GI Bill could provide eligible veterans with nearly $130,000 to pay for an undergraduate degree.
In addition, the legislation includes a transferability option—allowing a veteran to “transfer” at least some of the benefits to his or her spouse or children. This is a great idea, as most people in the military just do not have the money to save for their children’s college. On a personal note, this would be a great option for me as I am all “schooled out” (in full disclosure, I have a Ph.D. and two Master’s degrees) and would like to use the added benefits for my kids.
But wait, it turns out that the start date for transferability is Aug. 1, 2009—meaning that you would have to be on duty that day to qualify. In other words, every veteran who left the military between Sept. 12, 2001, and July 31, 2009, is automatically disqualified from transferring the benefits. And, as the vet will have had to serve for at least six years to transfer the benefit to his or her spouse (10 years to transfer to children), it means that the first time a transfer check could go to a family member may be 2015, depending on how the the different military branches determine eligibility. Possibly more than 100,000 veterans, including those who retired, were medically discharged, or fulfilled their service requirement, will be denied the transferability benefit patriotically embraced by leaders on both sides of the aisle and in the White House. Thanks a lot.
Instead of helping veterans serving in current wars who would like to leave the military, this legislation is a stick—not a carrot—intended to keep them in. For those who left the military between 2001 and 2009, they are second-class veterans, with no ability to give their benefit to their families. And those who enlist after Aug. 1, 2009 are forced to indenture themselves for upwards of 10 years to pass the benefits to their children.
Congress needs to close the transferability loophole that prevents veterans who served from 2001 to 2009 from sharing their already earned benefits with their families. It also needs to make the entire GI Bill, including transferability, available after three years of honorable service, instead of pushing the program into the next decade. If Congress wants to encourage “lifers” who serve 20 years or more, it should provide additional higher-education related benefits to long-service personnel, such as transferable housing allowances or stipends to family members, to those that dedicate their lives and their families’ fortunes as well to the nation.
In the original GI Bill, GI stood for “Government Issue”—the self-effacing slang used by the soldiers of World War II when speaking about themselves. In the new GI Bill, Congress needs to ensure that the “I” in “GI” does not stand for “incomplete.”
Robert Mackey is a retired U.S. Army officer and veteran of the invasion of Panama (1989), Operation Desert Storm (1991), and Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003). He is a military historian, author of The UnCivil War: Irregular Warfare in the Upper South, 1861-1865, and a regular contributor to the Huffington Post. Views expressed herein are his own and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the New America Foundation.