Spirit of the GI Bill renewed

Veterans were pouring back from the Pacific and Italian campaigns. Thousands were being discharged from hospitals without one cent in their pockets ... There was no provision for their training or employment. In view of the critical situation, I believed that Congress might make an exception of an omnibus bill to aid the millions fighting for their country." Warren H. Atherton, American Legion national commander, 1943?1944

The American Legion's greatest accomplishment, many say, is the GI Bill. National officers, staff and blue-cap members in their local communities had everything to do with the idea, the final composition of the bill and fighting for its passage. The rest is history.

The United States was soon transformed. College-educated veterans became business leaders, teachers, musicians, doctors, public servants and, foremost, vibrant home-owning American families. The GI Bill launched a half-century of growth and prosperity.

That half-century ended about nine years ago. By that time, the education benefit for those who'd served in uniform had been whittled down to the point where the stipend did not cover the true cost of getting a degree. The GI Bill that put Henry Kissinger through Harvard was no longer capable of covering public-transportation fares for some students seeking community college degrees.

So it was with unabashed enthusiasm that The American Legion worked closely with Sen. James Webb, D-Va., in the drafting of a new and improved GI Bill last spring. The Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act had its detractors, and the Legion quickly supported Webb in arguing that a better GI Bill would promote military recruitment more than discharge. In the end, that logic won, and the bill passed. VA is now hard at work to implement its many features, and Legionnaires have a new challenge on their hands.

The new GI Bill, for instance, does not replace the Montgomery GI Bill. It simply presents a different choice. VA soon will offer four prominent veteran education benefits: the Montgomery GI Bill, the Montgomery GI Bill-Selected Reserve, the Reserve Education Assistance Program and, coming Aug. 1, 2009, the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Each has its own set of benefits, and some veterans qualify for more than one set. States also have veteran-education programs, from scholarships to out-of-state tuition waivers. It can be confusing, and for many veterans, an educated decision is necessary to get the most out of it.

That is why The American Legion National Headquarters launched www.mygibill.org in November. The Web site explains in clear terms differences between the various benefits, answers to frequently asked questions, updates and alerts from VA, a map with clickable state-by-state benefits, and the story of The American Legion's role in the GI Bill's history, complete with a 10-minute documentary film.

Soon, veterans will also be able to log on and share with each others their experiences in the veteran-education process. The site is frequently updated, built for interaction and designed to grow and evolve with a new generation of veterans and Legionnaires alike, who are devoted, as the preamble of our constitution says, "to mutual helpfulness."