WHAT BENEFITS SOLDIERS WILL BENEFIT ALL OF US

It was my uncle, your grandfather, his best friend. It was your dad or his neighbor or his brother-in-law. They were soldiers in World War II, and when they finished serving their country, they came home to a grateful embrace – not just words, but action.

There was something called the GI Bill, passed in 1944, and it quite literally changed the face of America. It paid for returning soldiers to study at trade schools, colleges, universities – even medical and law schools.

Paid in full.

Nearly 8 million soldiers had participated by the time the original bill expired in 1956. Men who otherwise might never have gotten a higher education did so – and improved the lives of their families as a result. It was a seeding of American society, a leg up for those who stood up. It made sense. It was humane.

Today, a new bill is being proposed, one that would essentially do for our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan what we did for those in World War II. A new, expanded GI Bill. It has bipartisan support from senators and congressmen.

But not from the White House.

The same White House that features a president and vice president who never saw combat, the same White House that throws around the phrase “support our troops” to serve its purposes, thinks this bill is too expensive.

It costs $2 billion to $4 billion a year.

Too expensive? A voice for the veterans

“That’s what we’re spending in a few days in Iraq,” said Patrick Campbell, who served in Baghdad, saw several of his fellow soldiers killed and is now legislative director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “This is a travesty. If we don’t invest in this, instead of having the next Greatest Generation, we’re going to have a generation of veterans who came home and just got lost in the system.”

It seems so obvious that you are dumbfounded anyone could oppose it. First of all, investing in higher education only benefits America with more skilled labor, more wage-earners, more jobs and a higher tax base.

Secondly, the help is needed. Returning soldiers often have families and responsibilities that make it hard to siphon funds for college.

Thirdly, it’s the least we can do.

We all want to stand up for our troops. What better way than to say, “If you do this for your country, your country will do this for you”? Trying to keep enlistments high

The resistance to the bill – which was supposed to be voted on last week but was delayed to this week – is not only its cost. The White House and some military brass say it provides too much incentive to leave the service.

That is selfish and naive. You don’t keep a soldier working by keeping him uneducated. It’s “service to the county”- not to the military complex. Besides, the incentive of knowing you could have your education paid for should provide a huge boost in sign-ups, which we all know have been a problem.

The current GI Bill is terribly antiquated. The amounts don’t match what it really costs to attend college. “The sad thing is most people who are serving the military don’t know it,” Campbell said. “When they get out … they say, ‘I thought that was gonna be enough …’

“That’s why veterans are twice as likely to go to community college than their peers, because that’s all they afford.”

Shameful. Even this new bill isn’t enough. It only would cover the cost of the highest tuition at a state school. To me, if someone risks his or her neck for this country, the best schools – private or public, including graduate school – should be free. After all, we give grants and scholarships to kids who sacrifice far less.

“I had people tell me today this generation is not like the WW II Greatest Generation,” Campbell said. “They don’t deserve the same benefits. I had to be very careful not to jump out of my seat and say, ‘How dare you?’

“This generation might not have served in the same battlefield, but we’re fighting for the same beliefs and causes. We’re putting our lives on the line.”

Amen. The Bush administration should be ashamed for opposing this. Forget bumper stickers or mantras on talk radio. You want to prove you support the troops? Tell your lawmakers to invest our tax dollars not just in steel and metal, but in human potential.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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