Exhibit message in Iowa: how the GI Bill happened

Before The American Legion’s traveling centennial exhibit leaves the Iowa Gold Star Military Museum at Camp Dodge in mid-June, some 400 participants of Hawkeye Boys State will have the opportunity to see what can happen when citizens actively participate in government.

A GI Bill can happen.

“The Greatest Legislation: An American Legion Centennial Salute to the GI Bill” – a multi-media display that tells the ongoing story of the veterans benefits package that changed the world – will be at the museum on the nation’s third largest National Guard training post until June 15. That final week of its display, American Legion Hawkeye Boys State, which gives high school seniors-to-be firsthand understanding of U.S. government, will also be at Camp Dodge.

The exhibit, which has been on tour for nearly a year, describes The American Legion’s dramatic battle to get the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 drafted, approved and passed into law. It highlights the many positive results – such as massive growth of higher education, home ownership for the middle class and a $7 return for every $1 invested by the federal government – and the ways in which the GI Bill has been modified over the years to best serve new generations.

Another lesson is the power citizens can wield in a democracy to solve problems or improve society. The GI Bill is one of history’s greatest examples of that. And, says American Legion 100th Anniversary Observance Committee Chairman David K. Rehbein of Iowa, too few people realize today that the “greatest legislation” emerged from the people, working with their elected officials, not from elected officials trying to convince the people.

“The original GI Bill was passed 74 years ago,” Rehbein said at a Tuesday reception for the exhibit at Camp Dodge in Johnston, Iowa. “Most of the folks that were there at the time, or aware of what was going on at the time, are gone. So, it simply looks like another government program. They don’t realize that (the GI Bill) was created because of an organization that really did the work to be the authors, to get it introduced in Congress and to lobby to make sure it got passed in Congress in the form it was, as one omnibus bill, rather than a series of smaller pieces of legislation that may or may not have passed.”

The socioeconomic successes of the measure can often overshadow the example it sets for government participation, a central theme of American Legion Boys State programs nationwide. “That’s one of the things we are trying to teach them – that they are responsible for the way their government operates,” said Rehbein, a past national commander of The American Legion. “We set up the structure, but we don’t tell them what they have to talk about. We don’t tell them what pieces of legislation they consider. We don’t tell their governor candidates what platforms to run on. It’s their decisions. They are the people who are going to be in charge. They are the people who can do things like this, if a cause comes along.”

Brig. Gen. Randy Greenwood, state quartermaster for the Iowa National Guard, joined the event Tuesday and reflected on improvements to the GI Bill since he first enlisted in 1983. Since then, education benefits for National Guardsmen in particular have improved to the point where the GI Bill is considered one of the Guard’s most valuable recruitment tools.

“Do they have a better situation today than when I got in? Unquestionably. The expansion into graduate work … the ability to transfer (benefits to dependents) under the Post-9/11 GI Bill is really huge," Greenwood said. "For us, it’s a game changer. It keeps us competitive with a robust job market. You can’t really put a value on how it allows us to compete for the best and brightest out there.”

Greenwood said he didn’t qualify for GI Bill benefits after his first four years in the National Guard. Future changes, however, enabled him to transfer improved benefits for the National Guard to his daughters and allow them to finish college with almost no debt.

He added that without the GI Bill, the United States would be unable to sustain an all-volunteer military force.

“The GI Bill, to me, is one of the best values for America ... We get freedom out of it.”

Rehbein, who started his education as the only student in his class at a one-room schoolhouse in Nebraska and went on to become a metallurgist at the Department of Energy’s Ames National Laboratory at Iowa State University, said he hopes this year’s Hawkeye Boys State class understands from the exhibit that “the young men overseas fighting the war at the time were much like them” and that citizens – in this case The American Legion – took a problem and helped solve it for them and for future generations, not only achieving a legislative accomplishment but also setting a moral standard.

“The World War I vets made sure, when they created this legislation, that the World War II generation did not get treated as badly as they did,” Rehbein said. “We are seeing that again today, where the Vietnam generation is working hard to make sure that the people coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan are treated better than they were. That’s a continuing theme among veterans.”

American Legion Department of Iowa Adjutant John Derner said he often tells the story of the GI Bill – then and now – when recruiting members to join the nation’s largest organization of wartime veterans. “I have always taken a lot of pride that this was started by The American Legion. We are an organization that transformed the nation.”