America needs an historic investment

The quality and level of ability of our men and women in uniform isn't the least bit surprising to those of us who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces: the young soldier in Baghdad, the sailor directing traffic on an aircraft carrier, the Air Force medic in Afghanistan and the Coast Guard diver rescuing flood victims. All share a confidence and maturity that military service helps to develop and nurture. What is surprising is that employers are not taking advantage of either the maturity or skills offered by these outstanding young men and women.

Last year, one of every 10 veterans aged 20 to 24 didn't have a job. While these veterans suffered an 11.3-percent unemployment rate, their civilian counterparts had an 8.1-percent jobless rate.

Business leaders shouldn't just hire veterans simply out of gratitude; they should hire them because it is smart business. Veterans are highly disciplined, in good physical condition and have been stress-tested in ways that would dwarf most workplace challenges. They served with a sense of patriotism and duty - the same loyalty they can offer civilian employers.

As leader of the nation's largest veterans organization, I am proud of the many employment programs and job fairs sponsored and supported by The American Legion. But the problem is bigger than the assistance we currently provide. The war on terrorism is long, bloody and global. We don't need a program; we need a transformation.

When The American Legion wrote the first draft of the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, it changed the course of U.S. history. A generation of heroes became the middle class, bought houses, earned college degrees and started to live the American dream. Sadly, GI Bill benefits became drastically reduced. Many veterans chose not to use them - some never even got the chance to participate. Few veterans today can attend school without holding a job, and many colleges are beyond their reach.

We need to change history again. Washington doesn't need to give veterans another program. Washington needs to make an investment.

Sens. Jim Webb, D-Va., Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., John Warner, R-Va., and Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., have introduced the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act, a "21st-century GI Bill." Under its provisions, servicemembers returning from Iraq or Afghanistan could earn up to 36 months (four academic years) of benefits. Costs would be covered for established programs, including tuition for the most expensive in-state public schools, as well as monthly housing and textbook stipends. The bill also provides equity among active-duty National Guard and reserve members by adjusting the benefit scale, based on cumulative active service.

Urge your senators to support educational benefits for veterans that will make a genuine difference in their lives. It's the right thing to do. It's one way to help pay back the debt of gratitude we owe to the men and women putting their lives on the line to defend our country.

History proves that one can never go wrong by betting on America's GIs. And employers rarely go wrong by hiring veterans.