Back-to-School: Veterans and the GI Bill

Every year around this time, young people get ready to head back to school. For college students, this means there are books to purchase, roommates to meet, outrageous debt to acquire and cafeteria food to hate. However, all the stress and uncertainty that comes with going back to school is nothing compared to what many veterans had to endure before they ever stepped foot on campus.

For the past 70 years, the decision many veterans made to join the military–and to put their lives on the line–was purely a financial one, a means to obtaining an otherwise unattainable college degree and a comfortable lifestyle their parents could only imagine. They needed Uncle Sam to foot the bill, with only one caveat; they had to first survive combat. They were brave, motivated and willing to serve their country. In exchange, each of them earned the right to receive all that the federal government had to offer .

The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, now referred to as the GI Bill of Rights, or simply the GI Bill, is arguably one of this country’s most significant pieces of legislation. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, “The Veterans Administration (VA) was responsible for carrying out the law’s key provisions: education and training, loan guaranty for homes, farms or businesses, and unemployment pay.”

The GI Bill allowed for a massive expansion of economic opportunity and higher education. Three years after its enactment, veterans made up 49% of all college admissions. In addition, millions of veterans were now able to receive home loans, something most would not have been able to do before serving in the military. Not as many veterans took advantage of the unemployment pay provision of the law, fewer than 20%. This may have been due, in part, to the fact that more veterans were seeking higher education, thereby increasing their chances of finding work.

The GI Bill has been updated over the years. It remains a major incentive for joining the military, and one of the most recognized veteran benefits. The latest version of the GI Bill “provides the most generous school benefits paid to warfighters since the original bill was enacted in 1944. It can be used by a veteran or a member of the immediate family–and more than a million people have used it so far,” reports The Associated Press. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, “The new law gives Veterans with active duty service on, or after, Sept. 11 2001, enhanced educational benefits that cover more educational expenses, provide a living allowance, money for books and the ability to transfer unused educational benefits to spouses or children.”

Several notables used the GI Bill to gain a college education and became highly respected in their fields. They include: actor, singer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte; comedian and television host Johnny Carson; comedian and actor Bill Cosby; actor Clint Eastwood; former U.S. Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders; and former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Many of the more than 92,000 veterans who have shared their firsthand military experiences with the Veterans History Project (VHP) noted during their interviews that they took advantage of the GI Bill benefit, crediting it for the successful lives they were able to enjoy upon leaving the military.  One of them is a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, U.S. Congressman Charles B. Rangel (NY-13).

U.S. Rep. Charles B. Rangel (NY-13). Charles Bernard Rangel Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/89089.

U.S. Rep. Charles B. Rangel (NY-13).
Charles Bernard Rangel Collection,
Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/89089.

During his recent 42-minute VHP interview, Rangel, who had dropped out of high school before joining the Army, recounted the harrowing tale of his days in combat during the Korean War. He was young and afraid, and felt like he was in over his head as he tried to avoid being captured by the Chinese.

I ended up in a ditch…saying if I’m going to die, die fast. I knew that I was dead. My heart was beating so fast and so loud, that I thought everyone could hear it.

But, thankfully, Rangel survived. He came home a changed man, grateful to be alive, but still not quite sure of what to do next. After some soul-searching and a bad experience at a dead-end job, Rangel finally decided to seek help from the VA and use the GI Bill benefit he had earned while fearing for his life in Korea. “They worked out something where I went to NYU, I went to high school, got out, got a scholarship; and like I said, I haven’t looked back since,” he said.

Because of the GI Bill, Rangel was able to earn a law degree, which led to an illustrious career in public service. Now in his 22nd term in the U. S. House of Representatives, Rangel, age 84, is an outspoken advocate for education, among many other pressing issues.

Jeanne M. Holm. Jeanne M. Holm Collection,  Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/4293.

Jeanne M. Holm.
Jeanne M. Holm Collection,
Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/4293.

From reading a transcript of Major General Jeanne M. Holm’s VHP interview, I get the sense that she would have been a dynamic leader and women’s advocate even if she didn’t have the opportunity to attend college. But she did attend college, thanks to the GI Bill. After serving in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) and working her way up to Captain, Holm was placed on inactive status at the end of World War II, as United States laws did not permit WACs, or any women other than nurses, to have permanent status until 1948.

I went back to Portland, Oregon to get an education. I had no college education at all. We could not have afforded it when I was growing up, so I went to college on the GI Bill of Rights.

Holm received college credit for her time spent in the military, and after two and a half years as a student, she volunteered for active duty in the Army, this time with permanent status. The following year, she transferred to the Air Force. Over the years, Holm moved up the ranks and enjoyed a military career that spanned more than 30 years. She was the first female one-star general of the U.S. Air Force and the first female two-star general in any United States service branch. In addition to receiving a multitude of accolades and military commendations, Holm, who passed away in 2010 at the age of 88, authored three books on women in the military and was a member of VHP’s Five Star Council.

Another veteran who benefited from the GI Bill was Orthniel Robert Chambers, II. His audio interview was conducted for the Veterans History Project in 2008, the day before his 81st birthday. As a toddler living in Corvallis, Oregon, in the late 1920s, Chambers was among a small group of subjects of a local college research study to see if three- and four-year-olds could learn to read. As a result, he started school two years early, leaving him younger than most of his peers. This age gap would have no consequence for Chambers until years later when he realized that all of the young men in his college classes were disappearing; they were being called to fight in World War II. Chambers wanted badly to join them. He was frustrated with having to explain his age to the townsfolk.

Even some of them came back as wounded veterans, but those who returned gave me a strange look and said, ‘Where the heck have you been? You a chicken or something?’

Chambers was not a “chicken.” It’s just that his father would not allow him to lie about his age so that he could immediately join his classmates on the battlefield. He patiently waited until his 18th birthday to enlist, but because of a bad arm, it took him three tries to be accepted into the U.S. Army. After serving his country, both during World War II and the Korean War, Chambers returned stateside to finish out his studies, this time using his GI Bill benefit. And he wasn’t too picky about where to enroll.

I looked at a map and figured out where the four year University furthest from Korea was. I stopped in Corvallis for two days, then caught a plane for Miami, Florida, and went to the University of Miami on the G.I. Bill.

Paul S. Vaccari in Vietnam. Paul S. Vaccari Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/80393.

Paul S. Vaccari in Vietnam.
Paul S. Vaccari Collection,
Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/80393.

Whenever I come across photos of military servicemen and servicewomen posing with weapons and ammunition, like the one here of Vietnam veteran Paul S. Vaccari, I often wonder what was on their mind at that moment. Like so many others, Vaccari used the GI Bill to get a college education. He even went on to enjoy a career as a police officer, get married and become the proud father of six children. But on the day this photo was taken, there was no way to predict his story would turn out to be one of the good ones. Despite the contrastingly beautiful scenery and facial expression, the eyes don’t lie. The camera seems to capture just a glint of what I think may be hiding below the surface–a mixture of fear, hopefulness and “what the heck am I doing here?” Good thing for Vaccari, the GI Bill was waiting for him back home. All he had to do was remember that one caveat.

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