Appreciating America on Veterans Day

It’s only coincidence that on Veterans Day I am forced to recall my first wound as a Marine.  It was sometime in late spring or early summer of 1969.  A Navy oral surgeon removed two of my wisdom teeth, and the Marine Corps felt little sympathy for my pain. No drugs and no Purple Heart, just a long afternoon of un-heroic whining.   

Yesterday was different.  Two remaining wisdom teeth yanked out and today I am sufficiently medicated to be working.  Whining, yes.  But I am mostly grateful on this Veterans Day.   Both to be alive and to be working at something I value and enjoy.   If it weren’t for you, the taxpayer, the work part might have turned out different.

The GI Bill may have been the best thing ever done by the federal government.   It was a profoundly progressive idea. By the time the original G.I. Bill ended in July 1956, 7.8 million World War II veterans had participated in an education or training program and 2.4 million veterans had home loans backed by the Veterans Administration.    All Americans were rewarded, however, because the GI Bill played a major role in making the United States the world’s economic engine.  

The Vietnam War-era GI Bill made it possible for me to go to college, discover journalism, and enjoy a life of working at jobs that paid enough to at least get by and sometimes more.    I can’t imagine how my life would have turned out if I were simply discharged from the Marines into the world without the option of eventually going to college on the GI Bill.   Actually I can.

Just before I went into the Marines my father died of a heart attack.   Within two years of returning home, my mother was dead of cancer after living the last two years of her life in public housing.  I had no money and, it seemed, no future.   The Marines had done a good job of preparing me for war, but little else. 

But the Veterans Administration threw me a lifeline.   I enrolled in classes at Henry Ford Community College, using my VA education benefits.   The rest, as they say, is history. 

Today’s returning vets are re-entering an America that has few jobs, mostly because the people responsible for sending them to war helped trash the economy.  But there are still opportunities because of the Post 9/11 GI Bill that was the first piece of legislation introduced in 2007 by U.S. Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), himself a vet.    It took nearly a year-and-a-half to pass because of Republican opposition.    But today any Iraq or Afghanistan vet is guaranteed 36 months of college tuition plus housing and other expenses.  

Thus far nearly 600,000 returning Iraq and Afghanistan vets have used their VA educational benefits and there will be tens of thousands of other returning vets who will do so in the years ahead.    They will have a chance to participate in the economy without the burden of huge college tuition debt and like generations of vets before them they will be instrumental in rebuilding America.

You’d think all Americans would not just appreciate the GI Bill because it’s the right thing to do for vets, but also because they understood that government can play a helpful role in lifting all boats with the right kind of financial support.  But we know that isn’t the case.   

Back in June, 2008 when Congress eventually passed the new, current GI Bill after some key compromises that brought the GOP on board, it was done with bipartisan support.  It wasn’t, however, unanimous.   Six Republican Senators opposed the bill, including South Carolina’s Jim DeMint.   DeMint, a leading Tea Party Republican, was also the only no vote in the Senate this week when they passed legislation to help businesses hire more vets. 

I could go on about how crazy it is for DeMint’s narrow ideology to trump vets and our future.   But it is Veterans Day and I am feeling especially appreciative of the America that helped me go to college, find work and be able to afford good medication when I am in pain.   So I’ll just stop the whining. 

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