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Robust GI Bill is a great way to honor veterans

WASHINGTON — The wartime president goes on the radio and talks up a big idea. He wants a massive new benefits program for veterans. Both houses of Congress pass his bill unanimously. The benefits transform society, leading to prosperity for generations.

Sounds like fantasy or fiction, but it happened when President Franklin Roosevelt signed the GI Bill a couple of weeks after D-Day in June 1944.

The troops who came home from World War II received money for tuition at any college, university or trade school — public or private — that would accept them.

Books and fees? Paid for.

Living expenses? Check.

The vets got help buying their own homes. Those without jobs got unemployment pay, although few vets sought it.

America's middle class grew. By 1956, when the original education and training benefits expired, about 7.8 million of the 16 million returning veterans had gotten an education. The cost was about $14.5 billion, and the government estimated that every dollar was returned several-fold in increased tax revenues and economic growth.

Today's headlines tell a very different story of big ideas.

President Bush wants more massive spending for his unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — a total of $190 billion in 2008, so far. Our wounded warriors come home for treatment at the once-great Walter Reed Army Medical Center and other military hospitals plagued with problems the administration seems powerless to fix.

On the home front, Bush's big domestic idea is to veto an expansion of a children's health insurance program that would cost $35 billion over five years. That's nothing like the dollars draining into the deserts of Iraq. And, oh yes, Bush still wants to privatize Social Security.

We live in the era of the incredible shrinking government. Want a new interstate? Prepare to pay tolls. Worried about lead in kids' toys? Hmmm, yes, who isn't? Tainted food got you down? Grow your own.

Economic anxiety is one reason people join the volunteer military. The educational benefits are another.

But the GI Bill doesn't come close to paying for a college education anymore. The current payment for active-duty veterans is about $1,100 a month for 36 months. A bachelor's degree can easily cost $50,000.

Strengthening the GI Bill seemed easy when Democrats took control of Congress. But none of the two-dozen proposals has made it out of committee.

Perhaps the most likely to move this year is the most sweeping measure, sponsored by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., a Vietnam veteran and former Navy secretary.

The Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2007 is patterned after the World War II GI Bill. Webb wants educational benefits for any veteran who has served since Sept. 11, 2001. He initially called for full tuition and room and board, but high costs made him scale back. Webb favors capping tuition grants at the highest in-state tuition rate for a four-year, public university in each state.

A robust GI Bill is "the right thing to do," he said, and it'll ease disparities in wealth, wages and outsourcing of jobs. Co-sponsors are signing on. Everybody wants to do more for vets.

So why is Webb's bill stuck in committee? Money, of course. There's a war on, after all.

Plus, times have changed. FDR wanted to avoid what happened after World War I when troops received a $60 allowance and a train ticket home. The Labor Department warned that millions of men and women in the war would return home to joblessness, potentially bringing down the American economy. Today's professional military does away with that dire scenario.

Then there's the success of the GI Bill. At the start of World War II, almost no Americans went to college. Just 15 percent were high-school graduates, and only 5 percent were college graduates, according to sociologist Douglas S. Massey.

In 2006, according to the Census, 86 percent of adults 25 and older reported they'd finished high school, and 28 percent had a bachelor's degree.

But don't forget that we are a grateful nation, and we want to show gratitude to the troops. We need people willing to fight for us. And even in a time of diminished expectations, we need big ideas to believe in.

E-mail Marsha Mercer, Washington bureau chief for Media General News Service, at