It may surprise you to learn that the current G.I. Bill has depreciated so much that it doesn't even cover half the cost of an in-state public university. When I joined the Marines in 2002, I didn't rely on the educational benefits as advertised because I knew Congress has yet to fulfill the original promise of the G.I. Bill in modern-day terms - to provide full educational benefits to every service member. But many veterans did take that promise to heart, and today they have the debt to show for it.
Today, the Senate voted on a bipartisan bill written by Senators Jim Webb and Chuck Hagel that fulfills the original promise of the G.I. Bill to our veterans. A bipartisan group of Senators and Members of the House of Representatives supported the bill, but unfortunately John McCain was not one of them. Though both Democratic candidates took time out of their campaigns to vote for this important piece of legislation, John McCain didn't bother to come back from the campaign trail to stand up for our troops. Not that he would have voted for the legislation had he been in Washington -- McCain has refused to support the bill.
Now, my words are my own and I surely don't speak on behalf of all veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan or the U.S. Marine Corps. But I can tell you this: when I returned from Fallujah to complete my senior year at Bowdoin College, the current G.I. Bill provided me with enough to cover my textbooks and meals, that's it. The actual college tuition turned into college debt, and as a recent graduate five months removed from college that reality of decades of paying back my college loans is sinking in - hard.
Many of us knew this reality was coming. But as I watch this debate play out, the most frustrating part is watching Senator McCain repeatedly say that he will not support the new G.I. Bill. While I rarely agree with him on political issues, I've always admired his service to our country. But I just can't understand why he doesn't support this bill - a bill that can make the lives of millions of veterans easier during tough economic times. Instead, John McCain supports a watered-down version of the bill that is backed by the Bush Administration. It is really disheartening to watch McCain cozy up to President Bush at the expense of my fellow veterans.
The difference between the two bills is clear: one honors the commitment to our veterans to provide full educational benefits, and one is a political tool that does not. The McCain-Graham-Burr legislation only boosts most monthly veterans' benefits by $400 and does practically nothing to support the National Guard and Reserve. McCain's bill will do nothing for the over 160,000 Reserve and National Guard members who have served more than one tour in Iraq or Afghanistan.
The 21st Century G.I. Bill will provide full educational benefits to veterans equal to the highest tuition rate of a public college in their state and provides a monthly stipend for housing based on the geographic area. In addition, the bill will match the amount a private institution provides in scholarships. In my case, this means if Bowdoin College covered half the cost of my education, the G.I. Bill will cover the rest.
For Senator McCain to say the new G.I. Bill is too generous and expensive is morally reprehensible. Two weeks in Iraq will cover the cost of the Webb-Hagel Bill and, like the past bill, it's an investment in our economy. McCain also argues that the bill will hurt retention rates, though the Congressional Budget Office says otherwise. Living up to the promise of the original G.I. Bill can only encourage retention and recruitment.
When our grandparents came home from World War II, we made a sacred promise to provide for their education. 51 percent of World War II veterans took advantage of those educational benefits, and by 1947 veterans enrolled in the G.I. Bill accounted for 49 percent of all students. In many ways, the G.I. Bill gave birth to a new middle class in America. At the time, the program cost about $10 billion, or about $50 billion in today's dollars. Due to the increase in graduates' earning power and their addition to the national economy, these veterans returned $350 billion to the economy - nearly a seven-fold return.
When Franklin Roosevelt signed the original G.I. Bill, I could have attended almost any of the top private universities in the country in exchange for my service. In December, I graduated with almost $19,000 in debt.
The 21st Century G.I. Bill is not a handout; it's a long overdue promise to our veterans to give us the opportunity to succeed when we come home. It's about time for Senator John McCain to understand that, do the right thing, and tell President Bush to sign it into law.