“GI benefits are something service members earn while they serve. They shouldn’t lose it just because they aren’t transitioning back the way the government wants.”
Kristofer Goldsmith, Iraq War veteran (Associated Press)
There’s precious little bipartisanship left in Washington. But in a nation that too often gives little more than lip service to those who have given us the full measure of service, a House bill unveiled Thursday is an across-the-aisle no-brainer.
In the aftermath of 9/11, legislation was passed in 2008 that provided veterans full scholarships to any in-state public college or university, or the equivalent amount toward private college costs. But the bill had a 15-year window that closed on many vets, for a multitude of reasons. They might have family or job responsibilities.
Or, like Kristofer Goldsmith, whose harrowing but ultimately triumphant story is perhaps more emblematic than anecdotal, their war experiences might have made college impossible for a while. He came home from Operation Iraqi Freedom suffering from post-traumatic stress. He’s now a veterans’ advocate who will begin classes at Columbia University this fall. He’s “taken out tens of thousands of dollars to go to school” (those Ivy League degrees don’t come cheap), and says this change could help a lot of soldiers like him in years to come.
The bill is titled, appropriately, the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017. Its namesake was a World War I veteran, later a Kansas attorney and American Legion national commander, who after seeing what vets had faced after coming home from France in 1918, and determined that World War II’s heroes (and those who served after them) should fare better, reportedly hand-wrote the first draft of the original GI Bill in 1944.
The Legion’s current national commander, Charles E. Schmidt, praised the bill as a benefit to both veterans and the nation as a whole: "Years from now, veterans who were unable to attend institutions of higher learning during their military service or immediately afterward will be able to earn degrees and begin rewarding careers that can lead our economy."
The bill’s principal sponsor is House Veterans Affairs Committee Chair Phil Roe, R-Tenn. His counterpart in the upper chamber, Georgia’s senior U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, is expected to offer a corresponding Senate version. This bill, in addition to turning the 15-year education opportunity into a lifetime one, also increases education and housing funds for members of the National Guard and Reserve (up to $2,300 a year); and additional financial aid would be available to veterans who successfully complete STEM courses.
The legislation also expands full GI Bill eligibility to all who earn the Purple Heart, eliminating the requirement that recipients had to have served a minimum of three years.
And, in response to the hardship faced by literally thousands of vets when the for-profit ITT Tech went kaput, the new bill protects future veterans against such educational and financial stranding by reinstating benefits if a school closes in mid-semester.
A spectacularly bad, and blessedly short-lived, idea for funding the $100 billion cost over 10 years would have cut service members’ monthly pay by $100, a plan veterans’ organizations rightly rejected as a “tax on troops.” (Army privates, AP noted, usually make less than $1,500 a month, which makes $100 a relatively precious chunk.) Instead, GI Bill living stipends will be reduced to active-duty member levels for five years.
According to Military Times, there will be a legislative hearing on the bill Monday and a committee markup on Wednesday, with full floor vote expected before August. (The Senate, of course, must also approve the final legislation.)
American veterans have been willing to put their lives on the line for the rest of us. Post-service education — like decent physical and mental health care and family support — is only a tiny part of what we owe them. It should be available to them whenever the opportunity arises and the time is right.