Monday was Memorial Day-a time to honor our war dead.
President Bush and Republican presidential nominee John McCain used the occasion to praise the nation's military personnel and promote the war in Iraq. At the same time, both men continued to oppose bipartisan legislation that updates the GI Bill, which has fallen far behind rising college costs, that would benefit thousands of Iraqi War veterans.
The legislation which has already passed the House would pay full tuition and other expenses at two year colleges and four -year public universities for veterans who served in the military for at least three years since 9/11. President Bush, who avoided the Vietnam War by enlisting in the National Guard, has threatened to veto it because he says it is too generous and would discourage re-enlistments.
The controversy made me think about my father and uncle.
My dad enlisted in the United States Navy in 1941 to, as he wrote in a letter from the front, "fight the Nazi bastards." After training at the Great Lakes Naval Station, he became a Lieutenant J.G. and served as Chief Officer on a PT boat at Anzio during the invasion of Italy. Upon his return in 1945, the GI Bill paid for him to go attend Harvard University. He became an outstanding teacher who touched the lives of thousands of students. The University of New Hampshire endowed a scholarship in his name.
My uncle, Arnold, was wounded in Okinawa during the last big battle of the war. Public Law 16, a more generous version of the GI Bill for disabled veterans, paid for his undergraduate education and first two years of graduate studies. While in grad school at Columbia University he worked at IBM's first research facility, the Watson Scientific Computing Laboratory, which opened in a renovated fraternity house near the campus. The first male from his family of eight to graduate from college, Arnold conducted groundbreaking research in microelectronics in the 1950's before most people had ever heard of it and later helped write the first computer programs in physics for IBM.
Both of these men, the children of immigrants, became part of a generation of highly skilled, university educated scientists, engineers and knowledge workers who provided the brain power for America's post-war economic growth and shared prosperity.
The United States government invested in "the greatest generation" out of gratitude for their national service and because it was good for the country. It did this despite a national debt that was more than 121.7% of the GDP, significantly higher than the current 69.3% and despite projections that depression would follow the end of the war.
The GI bill worked as the post-war economy grew much faster than the debt. This investment in human capital paid for itself many times over.
Yet, President Bush and Senator McCain oppose updating the GI Bill, claiming its generous benefits, I kid you not, will encourage too many vets to attend college. They argue that it would discourage re-enlistments in our military which is having difficulty meeting recruitment goals despite lower recruitment standards. They ignore the Congressional Budget Office's projection that updating the GI bill would actually increase recruitment among those who need financial assistance to enroll in college.
The President and Mr. McCain who routinely accuse opponents of the war of failing to support our service men and women are dishonoring those who have sacrificed by refusing to update the GI Bill. Giving up golf, the President's self proclaimed sacrifice, doesn't help our returning veterans.
Over 4,000 service men and women have lost their lives in a war that has lasted longer than the one my dad and uncle fought in.
The men and women of the "greatest generation" earned the nation's gratitude. The GI Bill acknowledged that by financing their education. They in turn continued to serve the country with the education that the GI Bill afforded them. America's service men and women today are no less worthy. They need us and the country needs them. Congress should pass the new GI Bill and the president should sign it into law.