The Soldier and the Student

"Join the military and go to college." That's what the recruiters say.

But the deal that today's servicemen and servicewomen get is a far cry from what their fathers and grandfathers got. When President Franklin Roosevelt signed the GI Bill into law in the waning days of World War II, he saw it as part of his New Deal program. 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 program. It also provided unemployment insurance and loans to buy homes and start businesses.

By contrast, the current Montgomery GI Bill, passed in 1984, asks active duty members to accept a pay reduction of $100 per month through twelve months of military service. When they return to school, they receive $1,100 monthly for a maximum of three years of education benefits. It's an amount that doesn't come close to covering the cost of a modern college education, but it does help some veterans--if they can get through the red tape.

In July 2005, 23-year-old Paris Lee was honorably discharged after serving almost three years in the Army. A native of California's rural, picturesque North Coast where the old-growth redwoods grow, he returned home and enrolled in a free ten-week college prep program called Veterans Upward Bound at Humboldt State University. Lee was preparing to attend Humboldt State in the fall, but this past May he received a letter from the Department of Veterans Affairs denying his application for the GI Bill. "They said I'm not eligible because I served thirty-five months and two days in the Army," he told me. "Normally you have to serve thirty-six months to get education benefits, so they're trying to deny me based on twenty-eight days." After the VA rejected Lee's application for GI benefits, he sent an appeal letter to the VA regional office in Muskogee, Oklahoma. While he waits for the response, the Army veteran works dealing cards for blackjack, Pai Gow and Texas hold 'em games at Blue Lake Indian Casino east of Arcata.

According to the VA, those seeking to activate their GI Bill benefits must fill out a twelve-page form, which is eventually submitted to the college or university of choice. It's not uncommon for a veteran to receive letters requesting more information, and VA questions must be answered to the department's satisfaction. A notice of eligibility usually takes four to eight weeks.

With an application process like that, it's little wonder that, according to the Department of Education, veterans are much less likely to graduate from college than students who have never served in the military. The department's most recent data show just 3 percent of veterans who entered a four-year college program in 1995 graduated by 2001, compared with a 30 percent overall graduation rate.

Another reason for that gap is the military experience itself. The Pentagon sells an educational dream to recruits. In addition to promising tens of thousands of dollars for a service member's college education, recruiters promise future soldiers that they'll be able to "attend college anywhere they are based and even in the combat zone through Internet classes offered from the college they are enrolled in."

But most Iraq War veterans say that's a promise that exists only on paper. They say it's difficult to study in the military--especially in combat zones. Take 23-year-old Alejandro Rocha. The Los Angeles native joined the military in 2002. After graduating from high school, he had started to drift, and when his father's hours got cut from his job in a pen factory, Rocha dropped out of community college and took a minimum-wage job loading and unloading merchandise at Macy's. "I wanted to escape," he told me. "The money wasn't good, and I said to myself, I can't just be doing this my whole life. So I joined the Marine Corps. They sent me on three tours in Iraq." Rocha was assigned to an infantry unit and spent most of his five-year commitment either in Iraq or in training. After taking part in the initial invasion in 2003, he was called back for the brutal siege of Falluja in November 2004 (more than 100 Americans and 4,000 Iraqis died in that battle). In 2005, he was back in Falluja.

"I don't know how they expect us to take classes in Iraq," he said. "Maybe some people can. Maybe some people have desk jobs, but I was a machine-gunner. I manned Humvees and rolled around in Humvees, patrolling. Sometimes we went house to house...door by door and knocking down doors. When we were back in the US, we were just training and training. It wasn't really part of my job to study."

A different set of issues confronts America's "weekend warriors," members of the National Guard and Reserve. As of June there were about 90,000 US military reservists enrolled in college, and about 25,000 of them have been deployed at least once to Iraq or Afghanistan. Juggling school and military service isn't easy. Just ask Marine Corps reservist Todd Bowers. He was halfway through a degree in Middle Eastern studies at George Washington University when the Pentagon pulled him out of school and sent him on two combat tours to Iraq. On October 17, 2004, Bowers was shot in the face while patrolling the outskirts of Falluja. A sniper's round had penetrated the scope Bowers was using and sent fragments into the left side of his face. When he returned, he found his student loans had been sent to collection.

"I had notified my lenders that I was leaving on a combat deployment," he said. "Something went awry while I was gone, and [when I returned] I had tremendous amounts of letters saying, You owe this money." Eventually, Bowers said, he was able to get the difficulty resolved, "but the damage had already been done, and my credit history was ruined."

Under federal law, there are no protections guaranteeing that a school must accommodate a student/soldier who's been deployed. Universities and colleges are not required to readmit students when they return from overseas or to refund tuition for soldiers pulled out mid-semester--and they are even allowed to flunk students if they're not attending classes because they've been sent to Iraq.

Bowers dropped out of school. He works as government affairs director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), the first and largest member-organization for US veterans of recent wars. In June IAVA persuaded Congresswoman Susan Davis (D-San Diego) and Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) to introduce a bill called the VETS Act, which would require colleges to refund tuition for service members sent overseas, cap student loan interest payments at 6 percent while the students are deployed and extend the period of time during which student/soldiers may re-enroll after returning from abroad. Veterans groups are optimistic about the bill's chances for passage; but like most legislation geared toward veterans, Congressional leaders have put it on the back burner while they argue about how and whether to fight the Iraq War.

Other, more ambitious efforts appear to be headed for much less success. In January, newly elected Democratic Senator James Webb of Virginia (one of a handful of Congress members to have a son or daughter serving in Iraq), introduced legislation to create a new GI Bill called the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act that would provide college tuition, room and board and a $1,000 monthly stipend to veterans who have served at least two years of active duty since the 2001 terrorist attacks. Webb noted that the benefits in his bill essentially mirror the widely popular benefits allowed under the nation's original GI bill. According to a 1986 Congressional Research Office study, each dollar invested in the World War II GI Bill yielded $5 to $12 in tax revenues, the result of increased taxes paid by veterans who achieved higher incomes made possible by a college education. "That bill helped spark economic growth and expansion for a whole generation of Americans," Webb told Congress. "As the post-World War II experience so clearly indicated, better educated veterans have higher income levels, which in the long run will increase tax revenues."

Unfortunately, Webb's colleagues didn't share his enthusiasm for veterans' education. The Bush Administration quickly declared its opposition to the bill, warning it would cost tens of billions of dollars and would prove cumbersome to administer. Republican senators agreed, and the bill has not made it out of committee.

In short, the government's approach is not to benefit veterans, but to make the benefits of service seem attractive to soldiers when they enlist, while extracting as little money as possible from the federal Treasury. Today's GI Bill is not so much a ticket to college but a recruiting tool that can be used to persuade skeptical young people to join the military.

Independent journalist Aaron Glantz reported extensively from Iraq from 2003-05 and has been covering the stories of American military veterans since his return. He is author of How America Lost Iraq (Penguin) and the forthcoming War Comes Home (UC Press).

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