Before there was VE Day or VJ Day, there was the GI Bill.
Officially known as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, the federal legislation provided a variety of benefits to those still fighting for victory in Europe and the Pacific, including job training, home loans and, of course, college tuition.
“With the signing of this bill a well-rounded program of special veterans’ benefits is nearly completed,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt said during the June 22, 1944, signing ceremony, just weeks after Allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy. “It gives emphatic notice to the men and women in our armed forces that the American people do not intend to let them down.”
Seventy years later, President Barack Obama described the GI Bill as a “basic promise America made to our veterans.” He noted that his grandfather took advantage of the education benefit.
“Like generations before them, our men and women in uniform today deserve the chance to live the American Dream they helped to defend,” Obama wrote in an op-ed article in Military Times.
About half of the 16 million World War II veterans used the original GI Bill to advance their education, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Subsequent legislation expanded and extended similar benefits to veterans of the Korean, Vietnam and Gulf wars, as well as those serving during peacetime. The latest update came after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and extended the entitlements to the National Guard and Reserve.
But America wasn’t always so generous to its military.
Those who fought in the trenches of Europe during World War I were largely ignored by the federal government upon their return home. A promised bonus payment based on their service went unpaid for years and resulted in the spectacle of former soldiers protesting against the government, which in turn drove them out of the nation’s capital by force.
Even during World War II, some members of Congress grumbled at the idea of paying any benefits to soldiers or veterans beyond their regulation pay. But the bill passed.
The nation has almost 22 million veterans, about 1 million of whom are current beneficiaries of the GI Bill or other VA education programs, according to a March 2014 government report. That’s up from 400,000 beneficiaries in 2000. Under the Post-9/11 GI Bill, unused benefits can be transferred to a beneficiary’s spouse or dependents.
During the past five years, the VA has distributed about $41 billion to veterans and their families to pursue college degrees, certificates and other educational qualifications.
Nearly 80% of veterans are “very satisfied” (32%) or “satisfied” (46%) with their education benefits under the GI Bill, a June 2014 survey by Gallup found.
Overall, about one-third of respondents said they, their spouse or their dependents had used GI Bill benefits. Participation was highest (48%) among veterans ages 18 to 49, Gallup reported.
GI Bill® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). More information about education benefits offered by VA is available at the official U.S. government Web site at www.benefits.va.gov/gibill.