McCain Must Lead the Charge
This article was first published in the LA Times.
By Gen. Wesley K. Clark (ret.) and Jon Soltz
Sen. John McCain served his nation with honor in Vietnam, and he is right to be proud of his service. But by hedging on whether he will support a "GI Bill for the 21st Century," he is casting doubt on his own commitment to the newest generation of American heroes.
The Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act, sponsored by Sens. Jim Webb (D-Va.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), will restore the promise of a cost-free education to those who serve in the military. The original GI Bill transformed American history, providing education for returning soldiers. The GI Bill not only recognized our nation's moral duty for the enormous sacrifices of our World War II veterans, but it helped create America's middle class and spurred decades of economic growth for our country. Economists estimate that the original bill returned anywhere between $5 and $13 for every dollar we spent on it. But the original GI Bill has become woefully outdated, to the point where the average benefit doesn't even cover half the cost of an in-state student's education at a public college.
The Post-9/11 Veterans Act, which has an estimated cost between $2.5 billion and $4 billion, is common-sense legislation. With 53 cosponsors, including nine Republicans, the three other Vietnam War veterans in the Senate and former Secretary of the Navy John Warner, the bill simply updates what the late historian Stephen Ambrose called "the best piece of legislation ever passed by the U.S. Congress." Yet, faced with unprecedented filibusters, it needs 60 cosponsors. As de facto leader of the party, McCain could signal to other Republicans to sign on to the bill and assure passage.
Instead, McCain has said he hasn't had time to read the bill and isn't sure if he could support it. It's hard to believe that neither he nor anyone on his staff has had time to read such an important bill, which has been around since before he started running for president. But, even if true, McCain must do the right thing now.
Our newest veterans are struggling. Jason Bensley, an Iraq war veteran from Southern California, receives $650 a month from the current GI Bill for his education. Bensley, who served in southern Iraq, Mosul and Diyala province, is in debt, trying to pay for college. "I wouldn't have the faintest idea why a member of Congress wouldn't want to support the GI Bill," he says. "Sen. McCain should know how hard it is for veterans to transition back into civilian life."
The White House has voiced concern on the bill, arguing that if returning troops are offered a good education, they will choose college over extending their service. This is as offensive as it is absurd.
First, it is morally reprehensible to fix the system so that civilian life is unappealing to service members, in an attempt to force them to re-up. Education assistance is not a handout, it is a sacred promise that we have made for generations in return for service.
Second, falling military recruitment numbers are just as serious as retention problems. To send the message that this nation will not help you make the most of your life will dissuade a large number of our best and brightest from choosing military service over other career options.
McCain has made it a point to remind audiences that service to one's nation is bigger than one's self. Indeed, there is nothing more noble than risking your life for your country. Every day, Americans are doing just that, as they serve longer and more frequent deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But just because our service members are selfless does not mean they deserve to be left to fend for themselves as they return home and try to make a better life. Indeed, as much as his service to America is responsible for making McCain who he is today, America's service to him played an invaluable role too. McCain should remember that and sign on to the "GI Bill for the 21st Century."
Wesley K. Clark, the former supreme commander of NATO, led alliance military forces in the Kosovo war in 1999. He is a senior fellow at the Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations at UCLA and author, most recently, of "A Time to Lead: For Duty, Honoto, and Country."Jon Soltz is an Iraq war veteran and chairman of VoteVets.org, an organization of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.