GI Bill’s legacy, effect and evolution honored in LA

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World War II veteran William E. Price, commander of American Legion Post 257 in Laguna Woods, Calif., stepped to the microphone to tell his story, from newly discharged U.S. Army Air Corps electrical mechanic in 1946 to aerospace engineer whose work on the Voyager program to this day sends data back to earth from intergalactic space.

Recent UCLA graduate and Student Veterans of America member, 36-year-old Donnie Stiles told how when he first enlisted in the Marine Corps, “I was not mature enough for college.” That changed when he got out and realized the opportunity military service had given him.

American Legion Department of California Commander Robert Heinisch said education benefits were a driving force behind the decisions of his two sons, both combat veterans, to serve in the U.S. armed forces.

U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Raymond Jackson, who commands Maritime Safety Security Team Los Angeles-Long Beach, described the GI Bill as “a tangible way to say thank you for your service.”

They were among dozens of veterans who gathered Wednesday at Bob Hope Patriotic Hall in the nation’s second-largest city, home of Los Angeles County Military & Veterans Services, for the opening of “The Greatest Legislation: An American Legion Centennial Salute to the GI Bill.” The traveling multi-media exhibit is on its third stop in a tour that began last June at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

American Legion National Headquarters Executive Director Verna Jones described Patriotic Hall – known as a “living” veterans memorial facility that features a broad gamut of services and programs – as “a fitting place for The American Legion’s centennial salute … In a very real sense, the GI Bill is also a living memorial to veterans and all who have taken the oath to defend our nation in uniform.

“As a symbol of The American Legion’s centennial, the GI Bill holds a sacred place,” Jones said at the opening of a panel discussion moderated by American Legion Past National Commander David K. Rehbein, chairman of the organization’s 100th Anniversary Observance Committee. “It spans from The American Legion founders who wrote it – men and women who came home to no VA services, limited health care and bleak economic hope – to the post-9/11 generation, so many of whom chose military service as a springboard in careers that make America the strongest economy on the planet.”

It was not always that way, explained Dr. Jennifer Keene of Chapman University, a distinguished scholar of World War I and its effects. When the veterans of the First World War came home from their battlefields and duty stations, “they got $60 in separation allowance. They could wear their uniform home. They got train tickets.”

The American Legion grew quickly to prominence in its first decade by working to change the way wartime veterans should be treated by the federal government after discharge. “Veterans almost immediately turned to the new American Legion and joined The American Legion in great numbers – this was a World War I organization – looking for someone they could trust,” she explained.

Among the early Legion’s first orders of business, Keene told those gathered for the panel discussion in Patriotic Hall’s historic auditorium, was to make the case for “adjusted compensation” and to not define it as a pension program, which had been politically controversial and economically challenging for the government after the Civil War. Adjusted compensation was meant to reimburse World War I veterans for lost economic opportunity while they were serving in uniform while at the same time incomes were climbing and companies were profiteering due to the war.

“Adjusted compensation was a different argument,” she said. “During the war, there had been a boom, and wartime workers had made high wages, and war profiteers had made high profits. The American Legion argued that it was unfair to take soldiers out of their daily lives and pay them $30 while essentially everybody on the home front was making out. They had lost the opportunity to get ahead in their civilian lives.”

A 20-year bond, payable in 1945, was the compromise from the federal government. The Depression, however, intervened, and when veterans marched on Washington for earlier payment of the bonuses, The American Legion began to envision a different future for military veterans, some 16 million of whom would soon serve in World War II.

The GI Bill was built on that future. Drafted by The American Legion and fiercely defended through to passage as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, the so-called “GI Bill of Rights” revolutionized not only military service but U.S. economy and culture.

Among its effects, as portrayed in the exhibit, were democratization of higher education, reasonable readjustment compensation for those returning to civilian careers, a decent VA hospital system, the expectation of home ownership by average Americans, the ability to appeal conditions of discharge from branches of service and an incentive so great that the United States could become an all-volunteer force, as it has been for more than 40 years.

“The American Legion had the right idea,” explained John Kamin, U.S. Army veteran of the war in Iraq and an assistant director for the Legion’s national Employment and Education Division. “This was the paradigm shift that resulted in the 20th century economy.” Low-interest home loans through the GI Bill, Kamin explained, “literally changed the face of the country.”

Education benefits, home loans and the promise of a decent health-care system remain among the top reasons young people choose to begin their adult lives by serving in uniform, Lt. Cmdr. Jackson said. Most often, that choice proves successful.

“It’s an excellent tool,” Jackson explained. “A lot of young men and women, when they graduate from high school, they may not have the grades they thought they were going to have, and they may not have the finances they thought they were going to have, available to them. Having the GI Bill available to present to young men and women to enter the Coast Guard is an excellent recruiting tool … A lot of people will come into the Coast Guard for the GI Bill, and that’s the only thing they see. When they leave, they leave with integrity. They leave with training. They leave with respect from the community.”

Dr. Keene made the point that GI Bill-educated veterans have come home from service to contribute not only to the economy but to their local communities, which through the years has changed the way the public perceives veterans in general. “It has impacted millions of people,” she said. “It’s a way that investing in the veteran really helps us all.”

“The GI Bill was the only reason, I can honestly say, that encouraged me and gave me what I needed to finish at the junior college level and go on to the university and finish,” said Hugh Crooks Jr., vice chairman of the California Veterans Board and former American Legion National Executive Committeeman, a retired law-enforcement officer. “That’s why I have an undergraduate degree now.”

Without the Vietnam War GI Bill, Crooks said, “there would have been a lot of people who would not have had that opportunity at all.”

The original legislation nearly failed in June 1944 when a conference committee was deadlocked on a 3-3 vote until American Legion leaders led a frantic search for Rep. John Gibson of Georgia, who represented the swing vote to pull the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act out of committee. Gibson, who was rushed from rural Georgia through a rainstorm in the middle of the night to cast the swing vote, is rightfully remembered as an essential figure in the bill’s passage.

Attending the event Wednesday at Patriotic Hall was David Gibson, a member of American Legion Post 43 in Hollywood and Rep. Gibson’s great nephew. “My grandfather’s brother helped save the GI Bill and helped make it happen,” said David Gibson, first vice commander of California’s American Legion District 24. “Of course, being a veteran, I appreciate that.”

He remembers personally the struggle of working and going to school full time as he was starting a family after military service in 1975. “Every little bit helps,” he said. “I think it’s only appropriate. Some gave all, and all gave some, but to be able to use that benefit not just for education but for housing, even the benefits you get if you have health issues … it’s the least our country can do. It’s the least the government can do for those who put their life on the line.”

The panel discussion explored changes to the Post-9/11 GI Bill’s latest reboot, the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017, known at the “Forever GI Bill” because it lifts restrictions on the span of time a veteran has to use the benefits. The act, signed in August by President Trump, was supported by The American Legion, which also provided guidance to keep it valuable for new generations. Kamin noted that the GI Bill is frequently in need of revision to keep up with changes in higher education and the economy but also to keep the benefits package from getting watered down over time.

“It’s a responsibility that lives on in all of us,” Rehbein said of the pride and stewardship The American Legion feels about the GI Bill and the need to continuously revisit it.

To that point, added Crooks, as he studied the exhibit panels in Patriotic Hall: “We cannot educate people enough on that.”