SAN FRANCISCO - A leading political action committee founded by Iraq and Afghanistan veterans has launched a new internet video and petition demanding Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain throw his support behind a new G.I. Bill to provide improved education benefits for soldiers returning home from the two wars.The video, which is a joint project of Brave New Films, VoteVets.org, and former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe General Wesley Clark's WesPAC, features four veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, testifying on the problems they have with the current G.I. Bill.
'When I enlisted, I was under the impression that my college would be paid for, that I would have everything taken care of,' Iraq war veteran Joshua Drake says in the video.
'The current G.I. Bill is inadequate,' the former Navy Corpsman added. 'It hasn't kept up with the cost of inflation, or the cost of tuition or the cost of books... If I could talk to John McCain I would try to appeal to him as a fellow veteran.'
Originally enacted in the waning days of World War II, the G.I. Bill of Rights is one of the most popular social programmes in U.S. history. When President Franklin Roosevelt signed the G.I. Bill into law in 1944, he saw it as part of his New Deal package of social programmes. The law, officially called the Servicemen's Readjustment Act, promised returning veterans that the government would pay the full cost of tuition and books at any public or private college or job-training programme. It also provided unemployment insurance and loans to buy homes and start businesses.
But over the years, the G.I. Bill has lost most of its value.
The current Montgomery G.I. Bill, passed in 1984, asks active duty members to accept a pay reduction of 100 dollars per month through 12 months of military service. When they return to school, they receive 1,100 dollars monthly for a maximum of three years of education benefits. It is an amount that doesn't come close to covering the cost of a modern college education, veterans say.
Advocates are supporting a bipartisan bill by Senators Jim Webb and Chuck Hagel that would bring back WWII-era standards of providing vets with full tuition, room and board. So far 51 senators have signed on as co-sponsors. But the bill remains nine votes short of the supermajority necessary to dissuade a filibuster.
John McCain has refused to comment on the bill. Numerous calls and e-mails to McCain's Senate office in Washington and campaign office in Virginia seeking comment on this story went unreturned.
'It's time for Senator McCain to stand up for veterans, and be a leader,' the chairman of VoteVets, Iraq war veteran Jon Soltz, said in a statement. 'The success or failure of this bill largely rests on his shoulders. He is the de facto leader of the Republican party. If he signs onto the bill, it will pass and become law. If he doesn't support it, he needs to explain why he doesn't.'
McCain's silence on the G.I. Bill may surprise some observers, given the senator's six years behind bars as a former prisoner of war in North Vietnam. On the campaign trail, McCain speaks almost daily about 'supporting the troops'.
But organisations that have followed the senator's voting record note McCain's actions are rarely in line with the interests of veterans' organisations. In 2006, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America gave Senator McCain a failing grade of 'D' based on his voting record.
The same year, McCain supported the interests of the group Disabled American Veterans just 20 percent of the time. The main reason for the low scores is a consistent pattern by Senator McCain of voting against appropriating money for veterans' health care and disability payments.
According to Disabled American Veterans (DAV), McCain voted almost a dozen separate times against spending additional money on veterans' health care in 2005 and 2006 -- even as hundreds of thousands of soldiers and Marines were returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and filing disability claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
During that time, McCain voted against expanding mental health care and readjustment counseling for returning service members, efforts to expand inpatient and outpatient treatment for injured veterans, and proposals to lower co-payments and enrollment fees veterans must pay to obtain prescription drugs.
'There was an effort to increase the budget for veterans' health care beyond what President [George W.] Bush had requested as part of his budget,' DAV spokesperson Dave Autry told IPS. 'The idea was to increase funding for veterans' health care by cutting back on tax breaks for the wealthy. The proposals were pushed by Democrats and opposed by Republicans in almost straight party-line votes.'
McCain's vote also helped defeat a proposal by Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow that would have made veterans' health care an entitlement programme like social security, so that medical care would not become a political football to be argued over in Congress each budget cycle.
'The budget and appropriations process for veterans has been late the majority of the time the last 20 years and the funding proposed by the president is almost always insufficient,' Autry said. 'As a result, the VA could not plan for the number of returning veterans and staff the medical centres based on the likely demand. So we tried to make the funding sufficient, timely and predictable. If the Stabenow bill had passed, it would have been a big step in that direction.'
Like the other funding bills, the Stabenow bill failed on a virtual party-line vote with John McCain voting against the veterans. According to Autry, virtually every single initiative to support veterans was defeated in Congress until the Democrats took control of both houses in January 2007.
McCain's Democratic rivals for president, Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, both support the bipartisan effort to improve the G.I. Bill. In 2006, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America rated Obama a B+ and Clinton an A-. Obama and Clinton voted with the interest of Disabled American Veterans 80 percent of the time.
© 2008 Inter Press Service