GI Bill in Effect, Obama Marks Occasion with Speech to Vets

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 3, 2009; 2:51 PM

President Obama visited the electoral battleground of Northern Virginia on Monday morning to mark the implementation of last year's GI bill granting higher education benefits to veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan and other post-Sept. 11 conflicts.

The legislation is the most extensive educational assistance program for veterans since the original landmark GI Bill, signed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1944, during World War II. Although the bill to extend access to college for recent veterans passed Congress in 2008 and was signed by President Bush, the Department of Veterans Affairs issued its first payments to colleges and universities on Aug. 1. The government expects to spend $78 billion over the next decade.

Obama used the occasion to reaffirm his administration's commitment to American service men and women.

"We do this not just to meet our moral obligation to those who've sacrificed greatly on our behalf and on behalf of the country," Obama said in a 12-minute address before some 350 veterans, advocates and other officials gathered at George Mason University in Fairfax County. "We do it because these men and women must now be prepared to lead our nation in the peaceful pursuit of economic leadership in the 21st century."

Obama said the bill gives veterans an opportunity to become part of the "backbone of a growing American middle class."

He praised the veterans' service and pointedly contrasted it with other, less noble behavior. "We have lived through an age when many people and institutions have acted irresponsibly -- when service often took a backseat to short-term profits; when hard choices were put aside for somebody else, for some other time. It's a time when easy distractions became the norm, and the trivial has been taken too seriously," he said.

"The men and women who have served since 9/11 tell us a different story. While so many were reaching for the quick buck, they were heading out on patrol."

"We owe a debt to all who serve," the president added. "And when we repay that debt to those bravest Americans among us, then we are investing in our future -- not just their future, but also the future of our own country."

Obama, flanked by Vice President Biden, described the GI bill as: "You pick the school, we'll help pick up the bill." The law grants every U.S. veteran who served in active duty since Sept. 10, 2001, an opportunity to receive an in-state, undergraduate education at a public college or university at no cost. It also offers student veterans a monthly housing allowance, annual book allowance and covers fees for tutorial services and other educational programs.

The administration estimates the bill will help some 250,000 American veterans attend colleges and universities by 2011, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki told the assembled.

"History is about to repeat itself," Shinseki said, suggesting the bill could be as far-reaching as the original GI bill. He told the veterans' gathering that the bill signifies the nation's "respect and appreciation for your service and your sacrifice."

Sen. Jim H. Webb (D-Va.), a decorated Marine veteran of the Vietnam War and a former Navy secretary who wore his son's war boots during his campaign for Senate in 2006, introduced the new GI bill on his first day in the Senate. Then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), whose grandfather went to college with help from the first GI bill, was an early co-sponsor of the bill.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company