Assessing the New G. I. Bill

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(HOST) Commentator Bill Seamans reflects on what benefits and services should be available to our veterans as they return to civilian life.

(SEAMANS) It is somewhat perplexing for this observer to hear President Bush praise our servicepersons for their sacrifices in Iraq and Afghanistan, usually when speaking in front of a photo-op background of G. I.s or Marines, or even an aircraft carrier. And then we hear that, in Mr. Bush’s new budget released this week, some veterans’ benefits will be reduced – not increased, as we had hoped.

Buried in the nitty gritty of the budget, the inquisitive news media have found that many veterans will have their co-payments for prescription drugs doubled. Also, some of them will be required to pay a new fee of $250 a year for access to Veterans’ Administration health care.

Because we are now overwhelmed by the multibillion-dollar Social Security debate, these new surcharges don’t sound like much. But to veterans living on the margin of our economy, any increase in the cost of the medical care we have promised them as a national moral obligation…any increase in their medical costs is an onerous burden.

Veterans groups this week are stunned by the shock and awe inflicted by the new Bush budget. The Paralyzed Veterans of America said that the $250 enrollment fee is really a health care tax designed to raise revenue and to discourage veterans from enrolling for medical treatment. And The New York Times reports that some reservists returning from Iraq say they have been unable to obtain the health care they were promised.

Meanwhile, there’s the hope of some good news for veterans. Hardly noticed in her rebuttal remarks after President Bush’s State of the Union address, Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, said the Democrats are calling for a new G.I. Bill of Rights for the 21st century to guarantee veterans an education, health care and the opportunity for good jobs. I, for one, was pleasantly surprised because I think the World War II G.I. Bill of Rights should be restored just as it was back then. Those born after World War II really are not aware that the G.I. Bill of Rights was one of the most significant pieces of social legislation in the postwar era; no record of its passage can be found in history books.

The G.I. Bill gave vets full college tuition, all books and fees, plus a $75-a-month living allowance – a useful sum more than 50 years ago. Eight million vets, including this commentator, enrolled in education programs ranging from graduate schools to on-the-job vocational training. Veterans were given another boost with loan guarantees for homes and small businesses.

I think that, today, the wealthiest nation in the world owes our veterans nothing less.

This is Bill Seamans.

Award-winning journalist Bill Seamans is a former correspondent and bureau chief for ABC News in the Middle East. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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