Quindlen: Because It’s Right

James Webb, the Vietnam Vet and senator from Virginia who was once secretary of the Navy, likes to share the chart he prepared for five of his Senate colleagues. They are men who fought in World War II and afterward went to college and even law school on the American taxpayer, a free ride in exchange for their service. Webb's chart quantifies how much of their education costs would have been covered if they had served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Not even close.

In 1944 President Roosevelt signed the Servicemen's Readjustment Act, commonly known as the GI Bill. It was one of the most visionary and transformative pieces of legislation in American history, providing free education for returning veterans. Its champions believed it was the moral response to the sacrifice those service members had made, but it also solved an economic and social problem. An influx of millions of unemployed and untrained men into the labor force could have triggered another Great Depression. But with 5 million of those soldiers becoming students instead, the result was the ascendancy of the middle class and a period of enormous prosperity. Every dollar spent on the GI Bill was multiplied many times over in benefits to the postwar U.S. economy.

But government institutions are notoriously amnesiac. College costs have escalated, and benefits have shrunk. Service members are surprised to discover that the grateful nation that made it possible for Sen. John Warner to go to both college and law school and Sen. Frank Lautenberg to graduate from an Ivy League university won't even cover three years at a public institution, much less a private college. Members of the National Guard and Reserves, who have been a linchpin of the current conflicts, receive only a fraction of that help.

"Watch the commercials," says Paul Rieckhoff, founder and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "It looks as though you're going to be able to go wherever you want. People ask all the time, 'Don't you all go to school for free?' "

The answer is no, but Senator Webb is the author of legislation that would help change that. His revamped GI Bill would cover the full cost of the most expensive public institution in any given state; World War II vets like Lautenberg and Warner are enthusiastic supporters, as are dozens of other senators. (Oddly enough, Webb has not been able to get John McCain, who received the ultimate taxpayer-funded education at the Naval Academy, to take a position on the bill.) The source of the opposition is shocking: the Department of Defense, whose leaders argue that offering enhanced educational opportunities to soldiers would hurt retention. Military brass apparently tremble at the notion that multiple deployments, starvation wages and inadequate medical care might not be enough to hold on to their people.

Of course, this is the military brass who have had to lower age and ability standards despite spending billions to try to entice young men and women to join up. It does not seem to have occurred to them that a better long-range plan would be to offer true educational incentives so that more focused and ambitious people would enlist. Webb says, "This will expand the recruiting base because you could approach smart people just finishing high school, who are worried about paying for college, and say, 'If you serve your country you'll get a first-class education'."

Because of the DoD opposition, Webb has had a hard time prying loose estimates of how much these expanded benefits will cost, but at this point he thinks the figure is about $2 billion. That's half what is spent annually on recruitment and the cost of only a couple of days' worth of war in Iraq. But, more important, Rieckhoff says it's one of those costs he suspects the American people would support happily. "If the president stood up tomorrow and said, 'I need $2 billion to send vets to college,' people would be doing bake sales and carwashes across America," he says. "They can find that kind of money in the seat cushions on Capitol Hill."

The original GI Bill set the standard for innovative and audacious legislation. It was right in both senses of that word: the sensible thing to do, and the moral thing as well. And it helped expunge the shameful treatment of World War I veterans, many of whom had found themselves unemployed and destitute. The Department of Defense says it's a different era now, with a war that drags on and a volunteer Army, than it was when the GI Bill was first signed. But it's the same era, too. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that unemployment among young veterans is three times the national average. Already some Iraq vets are homeless and have substance-abuse problems.

Offering these men and women a college education is the least we can do. It's not free; they've already paid, in Fallujah and Kabul. If Congress wants an economic-stimulus package, this is a great one. A Topeka, Kans., lawyer and national commander of the American Legion, Harry Colmery, was the architect of the original GI Bill. He asked a question that is as resonant today as it was then: "If we can spend 200 to 300 billion dollars to teach our men and women to kill, why quibble over a billion or so to help them to have the opportunity to earn economic independence and to enjoy the fruits of freedom?"

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