Changes since 1944 make way for new veterans to attain stability once stateside.
By Edward Graham
Legislation geared towards supporting veterans has benefited one-third of all returning veterans since it was introduced more than 70 years ago according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, but faces new challenges to meet the needs of American soldiers stateside in 2015.
As millions of soldiers returned from World War II, Congress passed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 to provide loans, financial benefits and living and academic stipends for veterans. Known as the GI Bill, derived from the term “Government Issue,” the legislation recognized former soldiers for their service to the country through a bevy of benefits that allowed them to transition into the American workforce.
Mike Singer, a retired military historian who lives in Temple Hills, Maryland, said that the GI Bill granted a host of benefits to returning veterans that allowed them to pursue higher education and more affordable housing opportunities.
“They were able to get a real leg up once they returned from World War II,” Singer said.
Bill Gray, from Silver Spring, Maryland, served as an Army lieutenant in the 4th Infantry Division during the Vietnam War and used benefits from his GI Bill to finish college after the war.
Gray went through the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment, a program through the VA, where he learned about real estate and ultimately become a realtor himself. Not every veteran initially latched on to the opportunity though, Gray said.
“A lot of the guys, when we got out, they said ‘you can go this way to go to a class to learn about your benefits, or go this way and go home,’ and most of us wanted to go the way to go home,” Gray said. “We didn’t want to deal with the BS of yet another class because we were 22, 19, 20. We thought we we invincible.”
‘War on Terror’ shapes new bill, soldiers
The GI Bill was updated in 1985 to keep up with the rate of inflation, and became known as the Montgomery GI Bill, but much of the legislation remained stagnant for several decades until the events of 9/11 placed a greater emphasis on the role of America’s soldiers serving overseas.
Many veterans service organizations grew out of the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks and the U.S.’s declared War on Terror, but it took several years for legislative efforts to catch up with the initiatives of non-profit organizations.
On his first day in office as a U.S. Senator in 2007, Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., proposed the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act as a modernized update to the Montgomery GI Bill.
The new Post-9/11 GI Bill was more closely aligned with the across-the-board benefits of the original GI Bill, providing wide-ranging benefits for returning veterans and their families. The new bill provided up to 100 percent of tuition for public and in-state universities, better housing and loan opportunities and greater access to employment training programs.
Gray said he doesn’t follow the current politics of veterans’ legislation, but his own experience has taught him that the country needs to do more to address the issues affecting returning soldiers.
Marta Avery, who served for 10 years of active service and two years of inactive service in the 30th Brigade Special Troops Battalion of the North Carolina National Guard before retiring in 2009, was eligible for benefits under the Montgomery GI Bill.
“All military people, no matter what branch you join, are offered the GI Bill, or what’s now the Post-9/11 GI Bill,” Avery said.
Her son, Michael Daza-Hines, a retired marine who served for five years, was also able to put his Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits towards his education. He’s now a law student at Yale University.
“Michael’s using his Post-9/11 GI BIll to help pay for college,” Avery said. “It’s really helped him out a lot.”
Strengthening the bill
Although the Post-9/11 GI Bill’s benefits are available for any veteran returning from active military service since the September 11 terrorist attack, some for-profit higher education institutions used the program to expand their revenue base at the expense of a solid education.
The Department of Education’s “90/10 rule” places a 90 percent limit on the total revenue for-profit institutions can receive from federal student aid. Because veterans’ benefits under the Post-9/11 GI Bill are excepted from this rule, many for-profit institutions aggressively recruited returning veterans for their programs. This led to many veterans receiving sub-par educations, unaccredited degrees and debt that blocked potential employment opportunities.
An investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting conducted last year found that more than $600 million in veterans’ benefits from the Post-9/11 GI Bill were spent on for-profit California institutions. Many of these institutions provided unaccredited degrees and often failed to qualify for financial aid from the state of California.
Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Senator Thom Tillis, R-N.C., recently introduced the Career-Ready Student Veterans Act of 2015 to prevent veterans’ benefits from the Post-9/11 GI Bill to be used at higher education institutions that are not accredited. The same legislation, sponsored by Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., is also working its way through the House.
In announcing the legislation, Blumenthal said that veterans’ benefits should only be used for institutions that provide a worthwhile education.
“Only accredited school programs should receive GI benefits, because our nation’s heroes deserve the best, not the dregs, of American education,” Blumenthal said in a statement announcing his legislation. “Federal funding for substandard programs is a disservice to veterans as well as taxpayers – and this safeguard is long overdue.”
Veterans and former members of Congress gathered at the National Archives on November 5 to discuss the future of veterans’ legislation and support programs.
Panelist and former Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, R-N.Y., said that one of the most important focuses should be improving the Department of Veterans Affairs’ relationship with veterans and outside non-profit organizations.
“The VA cannot do it all,” Buerkle said. “It’s physically impossible and I don’t think they’re equipped in the current format. So I think the biggest challenge with the VA is to change the culture.”