Evan Aanerud didn't think he'd have to work full time to put himself through school. He joined the Marine Corps Reserves to fulfill two childhood dreams: to serve his country and to go to college. The 24-year-old's dad was a recruiter for the Corps, so he'd heard of the GI Bill, the program that provides money for education to veterans, and he knew from the ads he saw on television that the military would help him pay for college.
"When I came back from Iraq, I was surprised with the amount of money I ended up getting from the GI Bill," he said. That amount was $282 a month when Evan was at a community college. When he transferred to California Polytechnic State University and the rules surrounding his GI Bill benefit changed, he got $430 a month. "That's about the cost of one-quarter of the books, and that's about all that I got," he said.
Full-time servicemen and -women get more than double that amount, but for many, it still isn't enough in this age of skyrocketing college costs. Kellen McGee served as a Marine Corps infantryman for four years, including one deployment to Iraq. He now gets around $1,100 a month while studying business and Spanish at the University of Pittsburgh. That pays for about 70 percent of his tuition at the public college.
"When I was younger, I believed the GI Bill would pay more," he said. "I realized I would definitely have to work if I wanted to continue an education. It's stressful to pay bills, especially being married. It forces my wife to work a lot more hours, and I have to pick up as much work as I possibly can and still maintain the level of academics I like to maintain."
Neither of them is complaining. After all, being in the Marines teaches you to "adapt and overcome." But Aanerud and McGee are only two of the thousands of veterans who, although proud of their service, are coming home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan struggling to pay for the education they thought the military would help them obtain. The current GI Bill pays out a maximum of $1,101 per month, with most vets receiving benefits for 36 months. That's a total of $39,636. Since the average four-year public college costs more than $54,356, including room, board, fees and books, according to the College Board, there is a lot of ground to make up. Private schools, for the record, can total more than $129,000 for the full package.
The original GI Bill was passed at the end of World War II and sent millions of veterans to public and private universities on full rides. They even had their books paid for and got a monthly stipend. Many historians credit the GI Bill with building America's middle class and creating the idea of an accessible college education. "Godfather" author Mario Puzo, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and former Presidents George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford are among the famous veterans who paid for their education this way.
The education benefits our current military and veterans receive were created in the 1980s, under the Montgomery GI Bill, in order to promote enlistment in the military during peacetime. The discrepancy between today's era of multiple deployments and meager educational benefits, along with pressure from veterans' organizations, has inspired some lawmakers to craft new versions of the GI Bill. The most popular one could be voted on by Congress as early as Thursday (May 8), as part of the funding for the war in Iraq.
"I looked at the World War II veterans in the Senate — we have five — and tried to compare what they were able to get with what our veterans get today," said Virginia Senator Jim Webb, who wrote the Senate version of the bill now on the House floor. "Senator [Frank] Lautenberg, who is a co-sponsor on our bill, was able to go to Columbia [University] on a full boat after WWII. This Montgomery GI Bill wouldn't pay 15 percent of that cost today."
Webb's bill would pay for the full amount of in-state tuition at a state's most expensive public institution, as opposed to giving an across-the-board monthly allowance, and it would include a monthly stipend for housing and books. It would also increase benefits for people who served in the National Guard or Reserves.
"We call this group the 'Next Greatest Generation.' Well, they ought to have the same shot at a first-class future that the Greatest Generation had," said Webb, a Democrat who is a Vietnam veteran himself, served as Ronald Reagan's secretary of the Navy and has a son who served with the Marines in Iraq.
"This is something that was promised," said Democratic Arizona Congressman Harry Mitchell, who is sponsoring the House version of the bill. "This is an obligation we have, particularly in this kind of war, where it is all volunteers. These are people who have gone beyond what normal citizens do in this day and age."
The bill has broad, bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate but is a few votes shy of a sure thing, even with 57 Senate cosponsors. One senator who hasn't signed on is presidential candidate and veteran John McCain (both Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are co-sponsors of the Senate bill). Instead, McCain has co-sponsored a less popular, Republican version that would increase benefits for individuals who stay in the military longer and give servicemen and -woman more of an opportunity to transfer their benefits to spouses and children. Neither McCain nor the bill's other two co-sponsors, Senators Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) or Richard Burr (R-North Carolina) were available to discuss their bill at press time.
"I just think that John McCain, whom I've known for many years," Webb said, "if he sits down and looks at what we're doing, I can't believe he doesn't agree with us."
The Bush administration has also criticized Webb's version of the bill, saying it is too costly and would affect the number of people who stay in the military.
"They introduced their bill and said ours was A) too costly, B) too difficult to administer and C) might affect retention. None of those things are true," Webb argued. "It's only too costly if you don't believe that these people deserve the same benefits that the World War II veterans did."
As for the powers-that-be in Washington who believe offering a fair chance for vets to get an education will impact retention — the troops we spoke to are not sure those people understand their service.
"A new GI Bill wouldn't hurt retention," said Sharon Pyle, who served in the Army for six years, including deployments to Egypt and Iraq. "I did not get out of the Army to go to school. I had a plan. One of the reasons I joined the military was so after I served my country, I could go to school."