The nation celebrated the dedication of the National World War II Memorial on the Mall yesterday, but for many veterans, the GI Bill is the enduring monument to that great conflict.

Since it was signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, about $77 billion in benefits authorized under the bill have flowed to 7.8 million veterans of World War II and 2.4 million of the Korean War, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. An additional 1.4 million post-Korean veterans and 6 million Vietnam-era veterans have used the GI Bill for education and training.

That snapshot, however, does not begin to explain how one law has touched generations of Americans. "It built a modern middle class. It propelled a generation of leaders," said Anthony J. Principi, the secretary of veterans affairs.

One of those leaders is Richard H. Carmona, the surgeon general. He dropped out of high school at 17 and enlisted in the Army. He was sent to Vietnam and served with a Special Forces group based in Da Nang.

While in the Army, he got a general equivalency diploma, and he left the Army with "this kind of crazy dream" of going to medical school, he said. Carmona, who came from a poor family, found an open-enrollment college program in the Bronx and relied on the GI Bill to help cover expenses.

"By then, I was married with children," he said. At times, the GI Bill "made all the difference. There were times that my kids could get a little present, or we would be able to splurge and get some clothes. Could I have made it without it? Yes. But I would have had to work harder."

Carmona stayed on the GI Bill through his first year of medical school. He graduated in 1979 with a medical degree from the University of California, San Francisco. A decade later, he received a master's degree in public health from the University of Arizona. "With the GI Bill, you can go on and become a productive citizen," Carmona said.

Veterans benefits made a big difference for Ray Woolner, a 25-year employee of the Internal Revenue Service who served two years in the Army. Discharged in 1971 and unable to find a job in Detroit, Woolner received emergency assistance from the Veterans Administration -- two months of rent. "At the time, it was a lifesaver for me," he said.

Woolner began working for the IRS in Detroit as a revenue officer, helping collect taxes. Later, he transferred to the IRS regional office in Cincinnati as an administrative intern in labor relations.

He enjoyed the work and decided to get a master's to advance his career prospects. He was married, his first son had just been born, and he was trying to make ends meet on an intern's salary.

The GI Bill paid for a year at the University of Cincinnati and helped finance his first home mortgage. "I might not have done it had it not been for that extra money," he said.

Woolner, who was born in Scotland, "volunteered for the draft" because he wanted some control over when he went on active duty. He spent much of his Army time in the Washington area, including a stint at the Pentagon during the Vietnam War.

In his family, he said, "it was always a given that you would serve." He added, "Getting help from the GI Bill was like icing on the cake."

Woolner's career in the IRS brought him back to Washington, where he is a senior analyst in the agency's human capital office. He serves as president of the Professional Managers Association, which represents the interests of federal managers across the government.

The GI Bill also helped Principi, who served on active duty in the Navy for 11 years, and his wife, Elizabeth, who served 20 years in the Navy as a nurse and then as a lawyer.

In 1975, they were enrolled at Seton Hall University School of Law. Elizabeth Principi was pregnant, and her husband was clerking at a law firm. The GI Bill "didn't pay for everything," Anthony Principi said. "We had to work weekends and nights . . . but the bill was the foundation on which we could get back to school."

He calls the GI Bill, which now pays $985 a month to veterans, "the key to the door. . . . Rather than seeing the military as a detour from college, it is a path to college.

"Quite honestly, I do believe it has been very effective," Principi said. "Today's military force is the best we've ever had, in large part because we have offered them a wonderful opportunity when they come home."

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com