Our View: New GI bill is needed

Memorial Day is a tribute to the more than 1 million Americans who have died serving in combat since the Revolutionary War. And in this time of ongoing war, Americans pay special tribute to the nearly 4,100 soldiers who have died in the Iraq war and the nearly 500 who have died in Afghanistan.

But, as Abraham Lincoln understood, honoring the nation's war dead in peacetime is different from honoring the war dead in a time of ongoing war. The living, as Lincoln said at Gettysburg at the height of the Civil War, must "highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain."

We must pledge anew, Lincoln said, to the ideal that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth." And we must accept our duty to care for those who have borne the battle.

This nation hasn't always accepted that duty very well. World War I soldiers were discharged with $60 and a train ticket home.

That's why the GI Bill of Rights, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed in June 1944, was so important. That law gave returning soldiers benefits to compensate for opportunities they lost while they served in the military. It eased their transition to civilian life.

Before World War II, less than 10 percent of Americans went to college and home ownership was unreachable for most. The GI Bill spurred a college education and home ownership boom. It has been rightly called the "Magic Carpet to the Middle Class."

The nation should have a similar package ready when those who have served tours in Afghanistan and Iraq move from active duty to civilian life. Each year, about 375,000 return. We should prepare for their demobilization.

To that end, Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., introduced a 21st century GI Bill of Rights (S. 22). Most soldiers in the current war enlisted right after high school, so 90 percent do not have a college degree. As Webb notes, current law is designed only for peacetime service. (It requires a $1,200 fee to enroll, provides no money for books and housing and covers only half the cost of the average public college education).

Webb's bill would create benefits that mirror the college and job training benefits provided to returning soldiers after World War II. The benefits would cover the cost of in-state public college fees and provide a stipend for housing and books.

The cost: $2 billion a year. That's less than one week of the Iraq war.

President Bush, in a galling display of misplaced frugality, says he will veto the bill. Despite his veto threat, senators passed it Thursday, as part of a supplemental appropriation for Iraq and Afghanistan, with a 75-22 veto-proof majority. The House passed its version on May 15 on a 256-166 vote, not enough to override a Bush veto. The House and Senate will have to reconcile their versions -- and press more House members to support it. In our region, that means getting our representatives to vote yes.

Many veterans say they're frustrated that six years after Sept. 11 a new GI Bill still hasn't emerged. They should be. The two houses of Congress need to get their act together and get this done, with enough votes to override the threatened Bush veto.