AS THE SENATE and House get further along into legislation on the GI Bill, it ought to be kept in mind exactly whose lives are being discussed. Out of eight million Vietnam-era veterans, less than three million served in Southeast Asia. Of these less than one million saw combat. The average Vietnam-era veteran, according to the Veterans Administration, is 30 years old, married with one or two children, and has a high-school education. Average income is $13,400. Within this relatively stable picture, though, is the considerably bleaker lot endured by perhaps as many as one million veterans who are umemployed, underemployed, shut out of school, denied help for psychological readjustment problems and, in general, are the forgotten victims of a lost war. A few weeks ago, we reported on a survey done in Cleveland on the lives of 346 veterans. More than 40 per cent of the combat veterans were unemployed. More than a fourth were divorced. Forty-one per cent had alcohol problems. More than half had drug problems.
With these men in mind, Rep. Lester Wolff (D-N.Y.) has introduced the Comprehensive Veterans Readjustment Assistance Act. Its major purpose is to remove the structural inequities found in many parts of the current GI Bill. At the moment, for example, the majority of GI Bill veterans receive an average of $350 a month for as little as 12 hours a week attentance in a community college. Meanwhile, the nearly one million unemployed or undermeployed veterans are shut out because the GI Bill lacks the provisions for effective readjustment assistance. Rep. Wolff's legislation would address this problem by allowing veterans to draw a larger monthly check over a proportionately reduced time. This is the accelerated-entitlement concept. For veterans who demonstrate titlement concept. For veterans who demonstrate need and can complete their education in less than 45 months, the effect of the Wolff bill would be to make available sufficient funds to support their families and pay for the kind of schooling that previously they couldn't get. The Wolff bill is co-sponsored by 90 House members, as well as a majority of the Veterans Affairs subcommittee on education and training.
On Friday, the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee unanimously approved a similar approach that was offered by Sens. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) and John Durkin (D-N.H.). But it doesn't look as hopeful in the House. The leadership of its Veterans Affairs Committee appears eager to rush through a proposal for a six per cent cost-of-living increase for those veterans lucky enough to be in school. The effect of this would be to spend much of the available money on veterans who are comparatively well off. According to the VA, the majority of this group is employed full time and earning an average of $1,000 per month. It is one thing for such House committee members as Texas Democrats Ray Roberts and Olin Teague to favor a cost-of-livng increase, but it is something else for them to be acting as though little time exists for considering alternative proposals. Although hearings on the Wolff bill are now promised, the full committee has a responsibility to wait until it can be determined how best to spend the limited funds that are available.
In July 1974, President Nixon revealed his feelings about Vietnam veterans when, in a letter to the House committee, he threatened to veto any bill that would allow those veterans locked out of school to use their benefits. Mr. Nixon stated that if only a small percentage of them came forward it would be excessive and inflationary - that veterans didn't need it anyway. That narrow view prevailed, and has held until today. This time, the veterans have a President who has stressed both his appreciation for their sacrifices and their right to assistance. With legislation in both the Senate and House, this is the time for Mr. Carter to put this year's presidential influence behind last year's campaign rhetoric.