Returning vets deserve a new G.I. Bill

My father went to college on the GI Bill, graduating from Tuskegee University &

then Tuskegee Institute &

with a bachelor's degree in 1951. He was part of a giant wave of returning veterans who took advantage of the benefits offered to those who had served the country in World War II.

The nation's foresight in paying for generous benefits for veterans had far-reaching consequences, helping not just individuals but also the country as a whole. About half of the 15 million returning vets took advantage of post-secondary training. They vastly increased the nation's share of college-educated workers and formed the foundation of a broad middle class.

Now, Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., joined by his colleagues John Warner, R-Va., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., wants to give veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan a similar package of benefits, since those young men and women, like the vets of the Greatest Generation, have made enormous sacrifices for their country. But their proposal has met stiff opposition from the White House and from Arizona Sen. John McCain, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee.

McCain claims the proposal is too expensive; he has offered a scaled-down version of the plan. Webb's new GI Bill, which covers the entire cost for a veteran attending a public college, would require about $5 billion a year. The continued U.S. troop presence in Iraq costs much, much more &

about $144 billion a year. Surely, the nation can afford to give a fraction of that to the troops.

Perhaps the real reason for McCain's refusal to support more generous college benefits lies in a letter Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wrote to Congress a few weeks ago: The Pentagon fears the plan would lure soldiers away from re-enlistment and back into civilian life. With the Republican establishment lined up behind an open-ended commitment to Iraq &

and with some chicken hawks screaming for military action against Iran &

they need cannon fodder. They don't want enlisted men and women to have the alternative of a college education paid for by a grateful nation.

Revelations like that always give me a shudder &

a momentary feeling of disorientation. Is this still America? Aren't we the nation that claims we absolutely support the troops, that we will never dishonor their service again, that we all should be wearing flag pins to show our pride and patriotism?

In fact, from the beginning, the invasion of Iraq has had a heavy miasma of hypocrisy hanging over it. The volunteer military relies disproportionately on young men and women from American's working class &

not the poorest of the poor, by any means, but those who come from families with incomes below the national median. Enlisted men and women tend to come from households earning around $35,000 a year, according to a 1999 Defense Department study. (The current median American household income is $48,200.)

It's no coincidence that precious few politicians in high office &

from the Bush administration to the House of Representatives &

have spouses or children who have seen combat in Iraq or Afghanistan. For all the enthusiastic public support for the invasion of Iraq way back in 2003, only a small percentage of Americans were asked to make any real sacrifice. (Both McCain and Webb have sons who have seen active duty.)

Now, the Bush administration continues to stiff that small group &

with "stop-loss" orders that keep them from leaving the military when their tours of duty are up; with stingy medical care that doesn't provide the long-term treatment they need; and now, with resistance to generous educational benefits. Of course, President Bush has proudly reported that he gave up golf to show his solidarity with the troops.

Webb has proposed paying for the new GI Bill with increased taxes on the wealthy, and that's a good idea. The vast majority of the nation's affluent have made no contribution to the war whatsoever &

unless you count sticking yellow-ribbon decals on their SUVs. You have to travel outside the bubble of bright students worrying over Ivy League admissions, fathers proudly presenting BMWs to college grads and young women shopping for Prada purses to find recruits for the all-volunteer military.

With so few bearing the burden for the rest of us, we ought to be proud to support them by paying for their college educations.

is the 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the opinion page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Reach her at

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