Why is John McCain, the Republican senator and former POW who requests we “shed a tear” for all that is lost in war, not supporting a plan to improve college assistance to former GI’s? Never mind the pity party, most Iraq and Afghanistan vets want to get a life.

army recruitment poster

In recent weeks, reports have emerged indicating that the Bush administration is bucking a bipartisan plan to update the creaky World War II-era GI Bill, in part because it would be a “retention killer” — in other words, kids who have served one, two, three tours in the combat zone for Uncle Sam might be encouraged to then leave and get the education they were promised when they enlisted.


Certainly it would be difficult for a President McCain to pursue what he tells us is necessary: an open-ended commitment in Iraq, growing the Army and Marines by at least 150,000, engaging in a global struggle against terror, and “shaping [the world] for our future,” without a good military retention program. To be fair, no one knows why he has not responded to calls by bill sponsor Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) to sign on to the new GI Bill, or why it’s taken a year for the Senate to pass it.

For defense officials even to suggest that every enlistee should want nothing more than a life-time career as a professional soldier – after years of a targeted pitch, promising middle and lower income kids an education in return for lending body and soul – is nothing less than creepy, but it also underscores the desperation of waging an ill-defined, unpopular, preemptive war strategy on the backs of volunteers who make up less than 1 percent of the population.

Webb, a Vietnam combat vet and former Reagan Administration Navy Secretary (and TAC fan, I’m told) has promised to go “full bore” on the legislation, and has enlisted the co-sponsorship of nine GOP senators, including Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and John Warner, senior senator of Virginia and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee – veterans of Vietnam and World War II respectively.

“It’s a cost of war. You know, if we’re going to spend a trillion dollars on this war, the least we can do is to provide the people who have had to go and fight it the right kind of thanks.

The measure – which needs 60 senators to pass; Webb has 51 pledged – would update the GI Bill (or Servicemen’s Readjustment Act) of 1944 to cover the current cost of a four-year secondary education, depending on the vet’s length of service. The current Montgomery GI Bill, which covers vets who served after 1985, is flawed as it requires vets to “pay in” $1,200 of their soldier pay (non-recoverable) to the system and has not been adjusted for inflation. In other words, a typical four-year state school costs about $1,900 a month, while the Montgomery GI Bill pays about $1,110, and that’s without books or boarding. The maximum benefit under Montgomery is $9,675 a year.

“Given the cost of college these days, that’s peanuts,” said Paul Rieckoff, Iraq vet and head of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which is lobbying hard for Webb’s bill. He said the congress needs to acknowledge that most kids join “for the college money.” In a staggering number of cases today, they’ve paid a bloody price for it.

 

Vets whom I’ve talked to – particularly those in the reserve components — have been daunted by the current GI paperwork and are often told conflicting, confusing things about the requirements. One 14-year reservist I spoke with, who served tours in both Afghanistan and Iraq, said he was told at one point he wouldn’t get his full benefit unless he reenlisted, again.

 

Webb’s plan would reincorporate a stipend for living expenses and reportedly, to sweeten the pot for Warner’s support, it would include an incentive for private schools to make their tuition more affordable to vets in the program, and give parity to the Reserve and National Guard veterans.

Critics of the plan seem to be zeroing in on the estimated $2 billion cost of the program. Back in 1966, however, President Johnson signed an increase — which he initially thought was too much — for the GI program, and declared the so-far $21 billion investment in veterans’ education a wise one after World War II and Korea.

 

According to many historians, the 15 million “Greatest Generation” veterans who seized the chance to go to college on the government’s dime paid off – they became scientists, doctors, inventors, attorneys, writers and, yes, politicians of the “New Frontier.” Five World War II veterans in the current senate say that they wouldn’t have graduated from their schools under the current Montgomery formula.

 

Let’s also keep in mind that estimates place the weekly cost of the war in Iraq at more than $1 billion today. And the U.S. embassy in Iraq – designed to be the biggest in the world, larger than Vatican City – is expected to cost more than $650 million when it’s finally complete. Private contractors like Kellogg, Brown and Root have risked our soldiers’ lives for their bottom line, while overcharging the government millions in their contracting schemes in Iraq.

Still, the Pentagon shells out the money, and more and more goes down a hidey hole every year.

 

McCain chooses, tactically no doubt, to reference his father’s World War II cohort when he talks about the ultimate sacrifice of war. Unfortunately, he doesn’t talk enough about the specific sacrifices made by the men and women in our war today. Perhaps it’s not good for business. But he needs to clear up why he isn’t supporting Webb’s bill, or come up with a better one.