GI Bill at 80: ‘What has changed? What remains the same?’
An event at the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C., honored the 80th anniversary of the GI Bill. Photo by Holly Soria/The American Legion

GI Bill at 80: ‘What has changed? What remains the same?’

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From the World War I veterans who conceived it to servicemembers not yet born 80 years after passage of the GI Bill, a Thursday anniversary event at the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C., paid tribute to the legislation that changed America and continues to do so, in ways unforeseeable in 1944.

The American Legion – with support from Capital Bank, ARK All-in-One Relocation, National University and the American Gold Star Mothers – led a celebration that spanned the landmark legislation’s remarkable history, punctuated by a call to continue improving it for new veterans, their families and a different era. The event included a panel discussion with a diverse group of GI Bill beneficiaries, including first-generation Americans, first-in-family college graduates and the daughter of a wartime veteran who is now pursuing her master’s degree thanks to her father’s GI Bill benefits.

Nearly every speaker over a 90-minute program spoke of the GI Bill’s success over the years, as well as the challenges now before it.

“We’ve got to do better,” explained former Operation Iraqi Freedom combat officer, 32nd Under Secretary of the Army and American Legion member Patrick Murphy, first veteran of the war in Iraq elected to Congress. “I know this is a celebration, but we’ve got to do better.”

Murphy made the point that “one in five military spouses who are looking for work are unemployed.” And, he observed, “Most American families are dual-income families.”

Seventy-three percent of today’s young people, he added, want to serve the country in some way, if they can find a path. The nation can benefit from helping them choose military service, he told a crowd of nearly 200, noting that more than 1.1 million college students – veterans and their family members – are now using the GI Bill across the country and outperforming other students, notably in high-demand science, technology, engineering and math majors.

Murphy called on attendees to encourage young men and women to serve and ultimately do what the original GI Bill did for the nation after World War II – bolster the economy, improve lives and strengthen communities. “We, as leaders in Washington D.C. – as leaders across America – need to make it easier for these young Americans to give back,” Murphy said. “They want to give back. Their hearts are in the right place.”

American Legion Past National Commander Brett Reistad – who led the nation’s largest organization of U.S. military veterans in 2018 and 2019 (the Legion’s centennial window) – praised the vision of World War I veterans who worked tirelessly to build a bright future for men and women in uniform.

He posed a question for the audience to ponder. “Today, perhaps we should ask ourselves, ‘Are we thinking enough about the opportunities we are creating for Americans yet to be born?’  That certainly was what the World War I generation was thinking. And their legacy – so well illustrated by the success of the GI Bill – is a lesson for all of us.”

Retired Col. Adam Rocke, also a combat officer, Legionnaire and pioneer of the Army’s Soldier for Life program emceed the event. “I would not be standing here today if I did not raise my right hand in 1983 and commit to something bigger than myself,” he said. “I entered the Army as a young private, served in the Old Guard, got out, and used my GI Bill benefits to put myself through college.”

That ultimately led to a 34-year career in the Army – followed by over a decade of veterans advocacy – and the ability to send four of his children through college using the Post 9/11 GI Bill. The 2009-adopted version allowed veterans to transfer their education benefits on to their descendants. “Honestly, I wouldn’t have been able to make it – four kids through college – if it wasn’t for the GI Bill.”

“The success of the GI Bill is well-documented,” Reistad said. “Called the greatest social legislation of the 20th century, it launched a new era not only for veterans, but for all of America. An expectation of education. An economy driven by well-paying jobs. Home ownership for ordinary citizens. And, importantly, an all-volunteer military force, incentivized by the benefits of the GI Bill.”

Maj. Gen. Trevor Bredenkamp, commander of the Military District of Washington, said the GI Bill has endured and evolved because the needs of veterans – and the nation’s gratitude – have not substantially changed over the decades. “What’s changed, and what’s the same?” he asked, reminding the audience of the challenges veterans, and the nation, faced when some 75,000 World War II veterans a month were being medically discharged and coming home to a support system not yet formed in the early 1940s. “Homelessness, unemployment, a lack of access to education and opportunity. It was our nation’s responsibility then, as it is now, to act.”

He spoke of 1944 American Legion National Commander Warren Atherton and Past National Commander Harry Colmery and their resolve to ensure the new generation of the time would be treated differently than those who came home from World War I. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 – which Colmery assembled from hundreds of transition-assistance American Legion resolutions and congressional bills – “transformed the landscape of American society, offering returning veterans a pathway to education and prosperity. In its first seven years, it allowed 2.3 million veterans to attend college and 7 million veterans to train in critical labor skills. By 1955, 4.3 million home loans would provide $33 billion to veterans, effectively transforming the American middle class and elevating our veterans into that category.

“But the GI Bill represented more than just a government program,” Maj. Gen. Bredenkamp said. “It was a promise, a promise to honor the sacrifices of those who had volunteered to serve our country and a recognition of the value of military service to our nation. Again, what has changed? And what remains the same? It embodied the fundamental principle that those who had borne the burden of defending our freedoms deserve the opportunity to pursue the American dream.”

He explained that the evolution of the GI Bill since the Post-9/11 version was adopted has allowed servicemembers to extend opportunities beyond themselves. “There’s a soldier in my organization currently who uses student loan repayment to help repay his parents’ Plus Loans under his mother’s name,” Bredenkamp explained. “He used the (DoD) Tuition Assistance Program to complete his bachelor’s degree and has already passed along his Post 9/11 GI Bill to his daughter. That’s three generations positively impacted because of the service of this soldier and the opportunity provided by the GI Bill and its evolution.”

Department of Veterans Affairs Executive Director of Education Service Joe Garcia, a U.S. Air Force veteran, shared with the audience the overall investment the federal government has made in veterans over the past 80 years. “At VA, we have paid out over $400 billion in GI Bill benefits to about 29 million beneficiaries. Those are very large numbers, right? But behind those large numbers are individual stories. I have to share one myself … my own.”

Garcia said that after an eight-year enlistment in the Air Force, he was a student veteran at the University of Arizona. “For two years, I relied on the GI Bill to help me get through my education. I had to work a part-time job. I had a family. But the GI Bill was a primary resource to complete my degree, get a commission as an officer, and serve another 20 years. I would not be here if not for the GI Bill.”

Garcia, whose granddaughter has used her own Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits to become a second lieutenant in the U.S. Space Force, discussed the various iterations of the measure over the decades and the newest development: the Digital GI Bill. “What’s important about that are two things I will share with you. An automated claims for that original submission, to get your certificate of eligibility. When I did it… where is my 214? Where is my paperwork? … you’ve got to mail it in, and it takes weeks, maybe even months to get that certificate of eligibility. That was my road, years ago. Now, with the Digital GI Bill, we’ve automated that original claim, and a lot of that information is pre-populated from DoD. You’ve got a running start. So, instead of waiting weeks and maybe months, you can get a certificate of eligibility that same day. That’s huge.”

Another benefit of the Digital GI Bill, he said, is supporting “those that support the veteran, like the school-certified officials at all the colleges. They are the first touchpoint often for the veterans at a college.” The new system, which has had some 6 million enrollments since 2023 using the new system, makes life easier for those who “in turn can help the veteran beneficiaries on the spot. So, a lot of progress has been made.”

More important than any of that, he explained, is the GI Bill’s longtime value as “a tangible way for a grateful nation to say thank you.”

The World War I generation, which founded The American Legion, could never have envisioned such a thing as a Digital GI Bill. Their primary purpose in the years between the world wars was to correct the nation’s treatment of those who had served and sacrificed. “(Wartime veterans) wanted more than a suit of clothes, a few bucks and a bus ticket home after facing death against a foreign enemy,” Reistad told the crowd. “They wanted a chance to succeed in the nation they had vowed with their lives to protect and defend. The World War I generation said to every politician and every reporter who would listen, that veterans deserved better. And America deserved better. Changes these veterans demanded would forge a stronger nation, they argued.”

“The GI Bill changed everything,” said Army veteran and American Legion member Joe Wescott, legislative liaison for the National Association of State Approving Agencies, which oversees colleges that accept GI Bill-using veterans and their families. “No one could have foreseen the far-reaching effects it would have on our nation and on our society. Indeed, it opened doors that had been closed to minorities, to the poor and to women. Indeed, that GI Bill led to the greatest expansion of education in the 20th century.”

Its evolution, however, must continue, he said. “Now, all of us have a great opportunity to do more for those who have given so much for us. Now is not the time to rest upon our laurels. Now is not the time to be slack in our efforts on behalf of our veterans. In fact, our nation calls upon us to dream, design and do more.”

He said much more can be done to improve transition assistance, work with states and rein in bad actors who aim to exploit veterans using their GI Bill benefits. “This is our moment, to act audaciously for our heroes,” Wescott said. “And I call upon our friends in Congress to at least convene a roundtable to address these new, innovative ideas and other ideas … so that we might ensure that we make good on the promise of the legacy we have discussed here this evening.”