Invest in veterans: Finish the post-9/11 GI Bill

Yet the law is not without its flaws.  The new GI Bill’s confusing and inconsistent regulations have further frustrated an already challenging return for young veterans.  Some have even been excluded from the bill’s benefits altogether. These inconsistencies have become unintentional barriers for too many, especially when veterans who have served since 2001 find themselves underemployed at higher rates than civilians, particularly in promising economic sectors.

 Legislation now pending in Congress sponsored by Sen. Akaka (D-HI) and Rep. Minnick (D-ID) would fix the GI Bill’s shortcomings and provide prosperity not just for veterans, but the entire nation.  Just as the original GI Bill transformed our economy after WWII, educating today’s veterans is not only the least a grateful nation can do, but a wise investment that will see enormous returns.  If anything should transcend partisan gridlock and obstructionism, this reform is it.  

Fixing the GI Bill has to happen in a several important ways.  For one, we must expand the bill to cover 30,000 National Guard members—men and women who have dedicated themselves to Americans’ safety and security both at home and abroad—whose service was in categories not part of the original law.  In addition, a GI Bill fix will provide benefits to those pursuing vocational training, important in high growth fields such as health services, information technology and green energy.  And proposed fixes will also simplify the payment process by streamlining inconsistent, complex benefit rates, helping to end delays in payments that forced many veterans to seek emergency loans in order to pay rent and tuition.

The impact of expanding educational opportunity for veterans extends far beyond the individual, growing the larger economy as well.  According to Fortune magazine, top-tier companies such as General Electric are increasingly recognizing the unique talents and leadership qualities that veterans can offer—capabilities that can be even further enhanced by higher education. The business world is looking for students who can do more than solve abstract case studies; it needs independent, adaptive thinkers who have gotten their boots dirty in a globalized world.

Improved veterans education benefits connect the dots between available talent and a business world in need.  Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria has cited a "crisis of legitimacy" in the business world that requires a renewed focus on competence and character.  Nowhere are such attributes more highly regarded than in our nation’s military, where integrity, accountability, excellence, and service are the creed of a career.  Investing in a population that has cultivated such virtues can contribute greatly to our nation’s private and public sectors.

An enhanced GI Bill will provide many more veterans the platform they need to become our next “great generation”—carrying the torch first held by the nearly eight million GI Bill beneficiaries after World War II.  What has been forgotten is that this great success also began haltingly—only a few short months after first passing the original GI Bill, Congress found it had to pass significant enhancements.  Working with veterans organizations, Congress quickly upgraded the original GI Bill to include vocational training, while expanding eligibility to a large pool of veterans who had been left out.  Ultimately, these legislative fixes perfected the GI Bill, which in turn went on to assist three future U.S. Presidents, three Supreme Court Justices and fourteen Nobel prize winners, not to mention educating many of the human engines of our economy and the foundation of the American middle class.  

As Congress returns to a frenzied legislative schedule, 30,000 troops are coming home from Iraq to near-record unemployment and an economy in crisis.   Today’s veterans deserve a GI Bill like the one that enabled the Greatest Generation to pursue opportunities for employment, success and continued service.  Congress must invest now to empower our veterans and help set our economy back on track.

Karen Courington and Elizabeth O’Herrin are veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and Fellows of the Truman National Security Project. They are co-founders, respectively, of local and national chapters of the organization Student Veterans of America.