A standing-room-only crowd filled the Montana Military Museum at Fort William Henry Harrison in Helena, Mont., last Wednesday to welcome “The Greatest Legislation: An American Legion Centennial Salute to the GI Bill,” a traveling multi-media display honoring the veterans benefits program established by the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, which was drafted and pushed to passage by The American Legion.
“It touches everyone’s lives,” said American Legion Department of Montana Commander Larry Dobb, a U.S. Air Force veteran. “My dad bought a house with it, I’ve had two homes, and my wife bought one, and we couldn’t have bought those homes without the GI Bill.” His wife Janice, also an Air Force veteran, used her GI Bill benefits to earn a master’s degree.”
“I used the GI Bill – every bit of it,” added Ray Read, American Legion Department of Montana historian and Montana Military Museum director.
World War II veteran Dave Armstrong told the crowd he benefited from the GI Bill’s education provisions after his service as a sled-dog trainer at Camp Rimini near Helena. He later went on to serve as director of Montana’s state veterans affairs division.
Diane Carlson Evans of Helena, a Vietnam War combat nurse who serves on The American Legion’s 100th Anniversary Honorary Committee, was the keynote speaker at the reception to welcome the exhibit.
“The theme of legacy and vision is well-represented here,” said Carlson Evans, who in February received The American Legion’s prestigious Patriot Award for her work to install the Vietnam Women’s Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and for her continuing advocacy for all who have served in the U.S. armed forces. “We are sharing The American Legion story not just of what The American Legion did, but what The American Legion is still doing – fighting for a better GI Bill.”
The exhibit traces the story of the GI Bill from its roots in the fall of 1943 when medically discharged World War II GIs were returning to their home communities at a clip of about 75,000 per month and were greeted with limited, slow and inefficient services to help them adjust to civilian lives. Through illustrated panels, videos and artifacts, the display follows The American Legion through the challenge of distilling all the needs of returning veterans into 10 key provisions, the battle to get the measure passed and signed into law, the massive economic and social effects that followed, and the continuing work to deliver a GI Bill for new generations of veterans.
The most recent rendition, the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017, also known as the “Forever GI Bill,” was signed by President Trump last August and is named for the American Legion past national commander who assembled the original Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944.
“We’ve come a long way since that first battle to get the GI Bill passed,” Read told the crowd.
“It’s nice to have an exhibit of this magnitude here in Montana,” Dobb added. “The GI Bill has had a tremendous impact.”
The traveling exhibit is on display at the Montana Military Museum through April 26. The museum is open every Thursday from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m., and other days by appointment by calling Read at (406) 235-0290. Learn more about the museum at www.montanamilitarymuseum.org.