One veteran was a translator for the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War. Another was a staff sergeant in military intelligence who was stationed in his hometown of Memphis, Tenn., soon after Rev. Martin Luther King’s assassination there. An active-duty U.S. Coast Guard chief warrant officer second class and a former Army corporal who fought in Afghanistan were the other two. The four veterans – whose war eras are separated by decades – discussed the importance of one common thread among them, the GI Bill, during an event Saturday, Sept. 21, at the Morton Museum of Collierville History near Memphis.
The event was scheduled to build public awareness of The Greatest Legislation: An American Legion Centennial Salute to the GI Bill, a traveling exhibit from the Legion’s 100th Anniversary Observance Committee.
Mike Ellicott, president of the Friends of the Morton Museum, had seen the exhibit when it was on display at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans in 2017 and arranged to have it installed in Collierville. The museum there makes a point to curate stories of military history and local veterans. It also has an active program working with area Scout units.
Ellicott explained to the audience Saturday that the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, written and pushed to passage by The American Legion, was a breakthrough in the way America treated veterans after discharge from service. He told of Civil War veteran pensions that nearly broke the U.S. Treasury, the near dismissal of World War I veterans after their service and the bonus march of 1932 in Washington, D.C. He also explained that the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 faced challenges and criticisms at the time, particularly about the long-term cost, as the nation was fighting a two-front world war.
“Despite the many gloom-and-doom projections of high cost and fraud abuse, the GI Bill rates as one of the most successful pieces of legislation of any kind,” Ellicott said. “The GI Bill did accomplish its goal of transitioning World War II veterans back into the economy, into a peacetime society. The returning veterans were not, as originally feared, a drag on the economy. In fact, they became the catalyst for conversion from wartime to peacetime economy and a catalyst for multi-year economic growth in the United States… The model continues today.”
Vietnam War Specialist 4th Class Roberson, a 17-year member of The American Legion, observed that his parents were both World War II veterans who, like many who grew up in the Depression, did not finish high school. “They had to get out and work,” Roberson said.
Soon into his Army service, as he was learning Vietnamese in language school, he knew he wanted to make the most of the opportunity for a higher education. He started taking night classes while on active duty and after his tour – helping to decipher enemy codes and assisting in interactions with the South Vietnamese – he was passionate to keep studying, on his way to becoming a police officer with a degree in criminal science and later a Church of Christ minister.
“When I got out of the service, I started using the GI Bill to get a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree,” he said. “It didn’t pay for all of it, but I doubt I would have been able to do what I did without the GI Bill.”
His fellow Vietnam War veteran on the panel, Lynn Wheeler of Collierville, explained that he has had an unlikely story. He had started going to college on a deferment at the height of the Vietnam War. As a sophomore, he explained, “I squandered the opportunity.” Immaturity and bad behavior had cut his education short. “My story is the story of the good Lord protecting a foolish young man, and the GI Bill benefits are a part of that story,” he told the crowd.
He joined the U.S. Army in January 1968 after a recruiter who interviewed him thought he showed aptitude for military intelligence. After basic training, he went to counter-intelligence school and trained alongside soldiers who had already completed their degrees, including some with master’s degrees. But he loved the duty – learning interrogation techniques, automobile surveillance, information gathering and more.
Less than six months after Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis, Wheeler was stationed there as a plain-clothes Army investigator whose work during that time, he said, had to be destroyed later due to a court ruling prohibiting military investigations and file keeping on civilians. Later, he did background checks for Army personnel who needed security clearances to handle classified information. During his service, he got married and began using tuition assistance and, later, the GI Bill to earn a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree.
“I can testify it was very helpful,” Wheeler told the group. “Completing my education without it would likely have taken much longer. Patsy and I didn’t have much money, and I was reluctant to ask my family for help since I squandered their resources before. This is my story… and I thank God for protecting this foolish young man.”
U.S. Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer 2nd Class Mikel Zachmann said the Post 9/11 GI Bill has been vital to her pursuit of a master’s degree, which she says she would like to put to work for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Like Wheeler, her first stab at college was short-lived. She dropped out at age 18 during her second semester and ultimately found her way to California where she enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard shortly after 9/11.
She said “it was very hard, the first few months.” She said she barely knew what a cutter was when she under way on one, heading toward the Bering Sea. One of just seven women onboard, she said she worked hard to learn personnel administration and policy and soon rose through the ranks. She got married and had a son, but the marriage did not last, and she was a single parent in 2012 looking at her options. She used Coast Guard tuition assistance and her own money to complete a bachelor’s degree in sociology two years ago. Now, as she works toward a master’s degree in health psychology, she uses a combination of Coast Guard tuition assistance and her Post 9/11 GI Bill, “which is fantastic,” she told the audience. “As a single parent, I don’t have a lot of extra money to spend on my degree. Hopefully, I can continue on for a second master’s. I want to work for VA when I get out.”
Former U.S. Army Cpl. Josh Kline told the crowd his story of service, which included a 2016 tour to Kabul, Afghanistan, and how one particular incident helped bring a future in criminology into focus for him. He was the lead gunner in a security mission when a small child appeared in the road and “started putting fire on me.” Kline was unsure at first what to do, but then he went through the steps of his training. He showed his weapon, pointed it at the child, surveyed the situation and decided not to shoot. “I did not have a clear backdrop,” he said.
Civilians could have been hit had he fired on the child, who dropped his weapon and scurried away. That night, his company commander awakened Kline to explain what had happened after the confrontation. The child was videotaped running to a room about a mile away and going inside. At about 10 that night a Special Forces team entered the room. “They didn’t just find the kid. They found other Taliban. They found IEDs. They found RPGs. They found grenades. They found uniforms. Huge win for us.”
By not shooting, Kline had contributed to a discovery that, if left unfound, could have led to many American lives lost, his commander said. He ordered Kline to explain that story to others in his unit the following morning. “This,” he said, “is why we train.” After leaving active-duty service, Kline joined the National Guard in Tennessee and trained other soldiers. Today a full-time student in criminology using his GI Bill benefits, Kline hopes to combine his military training and college education for a career in law enforcement, preferably the FBI.
“I use the Post 9/11 GI Bill,” he explained. “It’s been great, and I can’t wait to see where God takes me next.”
Ellicott wrapped up the session with a statement reminiscent of the spirit behind the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944: “Having heard those four stories, you can see why the United States continues to invest in its veterans.”
The Greatest Legislation: An American Legion Centennial Salute to the GI Bill is on display at the Morton Museum of Collierville History now through Oct. 26.