By Louis Porter, Vermont Press Bureau
MONTPELIER - Despite billions spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, veterans have come back to a welcome that, in terms of college tuition assistance at least, has not kept up with inflation.
That is why an update of the G.I. Bill recently signed into law by President George Bush is so important, said U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders.
"At the end of World War II, the U.S. Congress passed one of the most significant pieces of legislation ever passed in the United States," Sanders said. "The middle class expanded greatly, poverty went down. But as the cost of college education soared as we all know, the educational benefits for GIs atrophied. The government was covering a smaller and smaller percentage of the real costs that veterans faced."
President Franklin Roosevelt said the original G.I. Bill "gives emphatic notice to the men and women in our armed forces that the American people do not intend to let them down."
Sanders said it was this sentiment that prompted him to join lead sponsor Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., and two other freshmen on the Veteran's Affairs Committee to push for the update to the education benefits for veterans.
There was resistance to the bill from the president and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. McCain said he believed the original legislation could have hurt retention efforts because soldiers might have left the military to take advantage of the bill's educational benefits.
Veterans, particularly the newly formed Iraq and Afghanistan veterans' groups, came out in support of the measure and pressured politicians to pass it, Sanders said. They recognized that many soldiers signed up with the expectation that government tuition assistance would cover their college expenses, only to find that the money didn't go far enough.
As a result of veterans' efforts, the bill passed with more votes than necessary.
"These veterans' organizations … are on the ground. If there are problems veterans are facing they are the ones who hear about it," Sanders said. "We created a public sentiment that became irresistible."
Luke Goodrich didn't join Votevets.org, a lobbying organization for veterans, to influence legislation. He got involved after hearing a piece the group did about a commentator who called Iraq War veterans who questioned the war "phony soldiers."
"That definitely got under my skin because I haven't agreed with much that the Bush administration has done," he said.
Goodrich, who grew up in Calais, joined the Vermont National Guard in 2001. He ended up in Ramadi conducting patrols as part of Task Force Saber.
When asked what was different about being in a war zone than he expected, his answer was: "Everything."
"It's nothing you can really prepare for or envision without being there. There is no parallel here in America," Goodrich said. "It's mind-blowing what people are capable of."
It may sound cliché, he said, but what mattered most to him was the people he served with, not whether he agreed with the war.
"Your motivation is really the guys you are there with," Goodrich said. "That is really all you are focused on day to day."
"I went into the Guard out of a sense for appreciation for what we have in this country," he said. "We live in a place where we can feel comfortable nobody is going to come knocking down your door in the middle of the night and taking you away because you don't agree with the people in power. I felt like I should repay the favor."
When he left the Guard in 2006 he still wanted to serve somehow, even if it wasn't with a rifle.
He had already earned his degree in English at the University of Vermont and finished paying off his student loans while in Iraq, said Goodrich, now 29. But he realized that many of those he was in the military with had expected the G.I. Bill tuition money to go much farther than it did when they returned, he said.
"It wasn't really turning out like they planned," he said.
So when Votevets.org asked him to be in a television commercial urging constituents to ask their senators to vote for the updated version of the bill, Goodrich, who now lives in Boston, agreed.
He ended up leading the ad.
"An organization like this can virtually pick someone like me off the street and next thing you know I am influencing significant legislation in Washington, which is pretty cool," he said.
Goodrich, who is now thinking about going back to school himself, said that advocating for the new G.I. Bill was an extension of his time in the military.
"I definitely still want to serve the country. I think this is a good way to do it even though I am not in uniform anymore," he said.
The updated G.I. Bill will put approximately $63 million more toward veterans' education over the next decade. Any veteran who has served more than 90 days of active duty since Sept. 11, 2001, may qualify. Those who served longer will receive more money, and the total amount is based on the most expensive in-state tuition costs for public universities in a veteran's home state. The money can be applied to private schools as well as certain other types of education and can be used for books and living expenses.
"It certainly is a huge improvement," said Clayton Clark, who assists soldiers as the state's Veterans Affairs Director. "It will provide a very tangible benefit to veterans in Vermont who use it."
Exactly who will qualify is unclear at this point, but Clark said as many as 3,000 Vermont veterans may be eligible for educational benefits. The amount of money available for the average veteran will double under the new G.I. Bill, he added.
Sanders says the law will benefit the economy as a whole. By some estimates, every dollar spent under the original G.I. Bill resulted in $7 in increased productivity, spending and taxes.
"This is not only one of the most significant new benefits for our veterans, it is also one of the most significant new educational benefits," Sanders said. "The better education our people have the more productive they are going to be. We need the best educated workforce in the world if we are going to compete internationally."
Sanders also says the bill is also a way for the nation to recognize combat veterans' service.
"Regardless of your position on the Iraq War you have to respect the people who have put their lives on the line in this war and in Afghanistan," he said.