What the GI Bill did to change perceptions

Last August, the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017 was signed into law, removing the 15-year time limit to use the benefit and making it more effective for members of the National Guard and reserve components, their spouses and dependents. It has been called the “Forever GI Bill.”

It is certainly a testament to The American Legion that this latest upgrade was officially named for the past national commander of our organization who is considered the chief architect of the initial GI Bill – the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944. Equally relevant is that the original measure, described as the most significant social legislation of the 20th century, arose from ordinary veterans like us, advocating on behalf of others who have served, using the democratic process of a nation we helped keep free, for the good of all society. That is the basis upon which The American Legion was formed.

For the past year, the American Legion 100th Anniversary Observance Committee has taken a multimedia exhibit, “The Greatest Legislation: An American Legion Centennial Salute to the GI Bill,” to locations around the country: the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, the Student Veterans of America National Convention in San Antonio, Bob Hope Patriotic Hall in Los Angeles, the Montana Military Museum in Helena, the Iowa Gold Star Military Museum at Camp Dodge and more.

At each venue, veterans of all ages have shared their feelings about the GI Bill. They have told of careers they would not have had without it. They have shared what it meant to have affordable home loans because of it. They have talked about the incentive it represented in their decisions to serve. They explained how the GI Bill made them, and the nation they swore to protect, stronger.

Quite often, visitors of the display have praised the GI Bill’s effects: creating the American middle class, democratizing higher education, advancing civil rights, making homeownership realistic for average families and returning $7 for every $1 of government investment.

Less considered are the ways in which the GI Bill changed public perceptions about veterans. A century ago, a war veteran got $60, a train ticket and permission to wear his or her uniform home. After that – whether wounded, shell-shocked or destitute – veterans were largely on their own. Some sat on street corners and sold pencils to survive while the citizens they fought for sailed past them, onto the campuses and careers of their dreams. Too many veterans were relegated, as Colmery once said, “to bow their souls to the frozen bosom of reluctant charity.”

Because The American Legion believed in veterans and their ability to strengthen the nation if given a chance, the GI Bill began the process of changed perceptions of veterans, from pitiable victims of war to engines of unparalleled socioeconomic advancement. That’s quite a difference.

Seventy-four years ago this month, the Legion’s belief in veterans took shape through the GI Bill. That belief must continue to guide us today. Even the GI Bill, successful as it’s been, isn’t guaranteed to last forever without those of us who are more than happy to show the public what can be achieved when a nation believes in its veterans.