In November 2007, Sens. Jim Webb and Chuck Hagel penned an op-ed in the New York Times advocating a reformed G.I. Bill that would provide Iraq war veterans with greater educational opportunities.
The idea, which was first introduced in January 2007, was at once ambitious and benign. Adjust the current landmark law -- which requires members of the armed services to pay $1,200 in order to participate -- to better account for spikes in tuition and living expenses. Not only would there be a greater incentive for those considering enlistment, but the American economy would be bolstered by an influx of educated veterans.
"We must put together the right formula that will demonstrate our respect for those who have stepped forward to serve in these difficult times," wrote Webb and Hagel. "First-class service to country deserves first-class appreciation."
Flash-forward several months and Webb and Hagel's vision (after months of consideration) is on the cusp of codification. The 21st Century G.I. Bill may be included in the language of the next Iraq war supplemental. And while, if considered separately, it could require 60 votes for passage, more than 50 Senators -- including many Republicans -- have already signed on as co-sponsors.
And yet, surprisingly, one of those Senators who has not yet offered his support is John McCain. How could a veteran of Vietnam and someone widely touted as Congress' foremost champions of veterans' affairs not sign on to a largely bipartisan, uncontroversial measure? (Both Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are co-sponsors).
A member of the organization Student Veterans of America asked the presumptive GOP nominee that very question several months after Webb and Hagel wrote their op-ed.
"I have not had the chance to examine it carefully," he said. "It seems to me that it is a good thing to do. But I haven't examined it with the care that it needs. But we obviously need to do something along those lines."
To this day, however, McCain has not signed on. Those committed to the legislation say they hold out hope and some expectation that he will ultimately back the measure (whether it be through co-sponsorship or a simple 'yes' vote). But the Senator's lack of leadership on the topic has been telling.
"John McCain needs to be on this bill," Webb said in a statement to The Huffington Post. "I have said to him several times that this is not a political issue -- this is about providing a fair, deserved benefit to our troops. Based on his own military history and how strongly he speaks about the positive contributions of the people who have served, I hope that he will get on board and support this new GI bill."
Indeed, opposition to the measure in the Senate is limited at best. There are those who argue that the cost -- roughly $2 billion more annually than the current bill -- is prohibitive. But last fall, Congress appropriated $19 billion or education grants on the basis of financial need. Moreover, the price tag for the Webb-Hagel measure is about the same as the cost of just a week at war.
The real hang-up for McCain may be the fact that the Bush administration has resisted the legislation. White House officials say that giving soldiers such an strong incentive to leave the armed forces would result in low retention rates. Soldiers sign up and -- after two years -- leave the army in droves to get their free education.
But as The American Conservative pointed out, it is "creepy" that defense officials would assume that "every enlistee should want nothing more than a life-time career as a professional soldier." Moreover, what's more of a retention killer: a violent and lengthy war in Iraq or the promise of education should you serve?
In the end, the bill, political observers say, is likely to pass with or without McCain's support. After all, it is tough to vote against a measure that gives veterans tuition, room and board, and a monthly stipend in exchange for their service. As The Washington Post editorialized: "Mr. Webb is right when he argues that the education of the nation's veterans must be considered a cost of war and one that the nation can't afford not to pay."
UPDATE: For more on this issue, check out this post by Gen. Wesley Clark, Iraq veteran Jon Soltz of VoteVets.org, and Brave New Films' Robert Greenwald.
Brave New Films' new video is below:
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