Fighting for Those Who Fight Our Wars

Today marked the 64th anniversary of President Franklin Roosevelt's signing of the GI Bill, which enabled millions of veterans to go to college, and is credited for sparking the post-war economic boom.

Now, the veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan say they deserve the same deal. Congress is likely to give them something similar as early as this week, but veterans had to fight to get it.

That is nothing new. Veterans have often had to put pressure on Washington politicians.

There was no GI Bill for veterans of World War I. And when 17,000 jobless veterans descended on Washington, demanding help, Army troops moved in to disperse them. Several veterans were killed, and hundreds wounded.

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Americans were stunned, and when World War II came, they were determined to take better care of those who had served their country in wartime.

The American Legion played a major role in securing the GI Bill, signed into law by Roosevelt in 1944. It gave veterans the economic tools to reach for the American dream: low-cost home loans and free college education.

They flooded college campuses, changing America in the process, producing better educated citizens, and playing a big part in post-war prosperity.

Soon, there were more wars. And controversy over the amount of GI benefits.

During the Vietnam War, veterans complained their benefits were not nearly as big as the ones that veterans of World War II received. Only after a long fight in Washington did Vietnam vets get more money to attend college.

For the past few years, veterans of the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have criticized the current GI Bill.

Veteran Bryan Bailey said he is struggling to pay his bills at a community college in Miami. He said he believes today's GI Bill should provide the same kind of generous benefits his grandfather got after World War II.

"I think veterans today, who are coming back, you know, in their early 20s and 30s, deserve the same thing," Bailey said.

For months, Pentagon officials argued that if benefits were too generous, troops would have little incentive to re-enlist. President Bush and Sen. John McCain agreed, and a new GI Bill became a major campaign issue.

"I am very seriously opposed to any measures that would be disincentives for people to remain in the military," said McCain, the Arizona senator who is the likely Republican presidential nominee.

His likely Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, criticized McCain's stand on the bill.

"I cannot understand why he would line up behind the president in his opposition to this GI Bill," he said.

But late last week, a bipartisan compromise was worked out.

Both McCain and Bush say they support the new bill, which will provide $50 billion over the next 10 years for veterans like Bailey and for those still serving in uniform.

It is just the latest chapter in the decades-old fight over the benefits paid to America's men and women in uniform.

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